Pieces of a Dream - Part Two

"Just tell me one thing," Jess says, as we're waiting for Megan to come out, unwelcome guests once more. "This - between us. I never meant to ask you, but... did it have to do with your senses?"

There is no mistaking her question. As we're closing the book, she wants some answers.

With a start, I realize I've never discussed this decision of mine with her. Not with anyone, for that matter; even with the story all over the papers some years ago, it has always remained a private thing between Blair and me.

"No. It was nothing like that."

Alex, Lila; I had excuses, and Blair sure didn't hesitate to come up with the explanations. Nothing to explain, to excuse now. For Jess, it's important to hear it, for me it's the realization that it wasn't always about responsibility. Hell, I got away with a lot just because of those enhanced senses.

She nods, looking relieved. "Okay then. I just..." She shakes her head. "I don't know how to say this. I hope you're not thinking I'm a hypocrite, because you're still one of the most important friends in my life. But--"

I lay a finger on her lips to stop her from saying it. "I understand," and she knows that it's not just a phrase, that I really do understand. For once, the attraction won't die overnight. I touch her hair, feeling it one last time with touch turned up all the way, then I retract my hand.

We might not deserve a friend like Blair now, but we do want to earn that trust again. This second chance should be teaching us something.

~~~~~~~

I've temporarily moved in with Megan. She doesn't mind, even handled the negotiations so that I wouldn't have to meet Jess or Jim at any time - gives me some bad déjŕ-vu. She's good in that role, but I wish we would have never needed her in it. Like back then during the dissertation disaster, when Jim had refused to even talk to me.

Of course, at the moment I am the one who's terminated the communication, but you can't compare that, right?

Megan tries to tell me that it can't go on like that, and of course, she's got a point. I won't be able to avoid 'that' conversation forever, at least if I'm ever going to work for Major Crimes again, and it's not like there are a million other options. Paraguay has set me back more than a little, that's for sure, so it'll take a while to get finished - but I don't think I'll have a job with the university afterwards. I've been keeping a low profile, but Edwards is praying for the day when she can throw my ass out of her holy halls forever.

Even imagining... talking to Jess or Jim brings back the images.

What would a normal life even look like right now? I have no idea. And whenever Megan asks, I tell her no. Tell 'em nothing has changed.

~~~~~~~

Blair has managed to avoid both of us for a surprisingly long time. Sure Connor played a role in that, but she's not trying to hide anything, not even the fact that she's annoyed with me, and even Jess.

Then today, a meeting with a snitch is cut short because the guy doesn't turn up, so I head back to the station - and he's there.

We haven't really spoken since he caught Jess and me en flagrante.

I'm quite sure he's not here to see me, but I gesture to the unoccupied chair beside my desk. There has to be a beginning somewhere, and now is not worse a moment than any. "Hey, Chief," I say. "Why don't we sit down for a moment? You want a coffee?"

He's still using one crutch, looking like he could use a moment of rest, but of course, that would be way too easy.

"I didn't come here to chat with you," Blair says icily. "Is Simon here?"

"I just got here, but..." I extend my hearing into Simon's office, where the blinds are down. "Yeah, he's there, but on the phone..." I wince. "With the Mayor. You'd better wait for a while."

I realize that our colleagues around are suddenly very busy, not even looking up, heartbeats going faster. So much for the rumor mill.

"I'll take my chances."

"Blair, wait. There must be something..." I search for words frantically. "We could take this elsewhere. I'll buy you a coffee. Let's just talk..."

"About the fact you're screwing my wife?"

"Keep it down, for God's sake," I say, getting impatient myself. This is not how I've imagined this. "I know I've made a bad mistake here, but I don't--"

He interrupts me again. "What, you're worried about the 'audacity'? Come on, Jim, you don't honestly believe that everybody doesn't already know. Tell me just one thing - you jumped her bones before or after the fucking wake you held for me?"

I'm fairly speechless at the moment, saved by Simon who speaks up now, rather exasperatedly. "Gentlemen, I expect a bit of consideration regarding your colleagues that are trying to work here. Sandburg, my office."

"Sir."

Blair turns to make his way to Simon's office.

Okay, that was the first attempt, and its course was to be expected. I won't give up so easily though.

~~~~~~~

"Don't tell me it's way childish," I say after I've closed the door behind me. "I know that."

"Sit down," Simon says. He places a cup of coffee in front of me, and I have to smile despite myself. He might come across as someone who's quick to 'spit the dummy', as Megan would say. If you know him a little better though, it's obvious that he's like a father figure to everyone in the department, always trying to help.

And I know he'd call me crazy if I said this aloud.

"What's going on, Blair?" he asks now. "And tell me it's not what I think it is."

I stare at him incredulously. "Don't tell me you haven't noticed. Jim and Jess couldn't have been too upset about my alleged death; they sure found a way to console each other. If I think about it now, it's likely that it started way before."

"For whatever it's worth, that's not what I believe. You have every right to be mad at them, I'll be the first one to admit it. But don't doubt for a minute that they were devastated when they came back from Paraguay. We all were, back then."

I've gulped down the coffee too hastily, and it's burning my throat. "Then why? You mean to say I should just act like it isn't a big deal? Sorry, Simon, I did that one time too many."

"I know, kid, I know," he sighs, then catches my smile at his choice of words

I'll never get rid of all those nicknames, at least not around here.

"Anyway." He pours a little more coffee into my mug, regarding me thoughtfully for a moment. "I'm telling you something, and it'll stay between you and me - and your curious partner *can* turn it down now... Joan and I broke up over the same thing," he continues after a pause.

"She was having an affair?"

"No. I was."

This moment, I'm actually speechless.

"She was a friend of Joan's, not as close as you and Jim are, but a friend all the same." It surprises me that he's using the present tense here, but I sure can't ignore it. As well as the longing his words cause, all of a sudden.

"It's over and done with now." Simon shrugs. "What I'm saying is, before you leave everything behind, make sure it is really what you want."

"If only I knew... thank you for trusting me with this, though. It means a lot."

It's not enough to chase the worried expression from his face. But he's got me thinking.

~~~~~~~

III

 

It's late one evening; Megan and I are staying up late, because she has the next day off, and we share a bottle of wine. "Maybe you and Jim should go on a trip together, just for a few days. Hash things out on neutral territory."

I think she's gone crazy, and tell her so. "If only it was about 'things', then it would be an option, I guess. But this... At the moment, I can't even imagine going back to work. Megan... how is Jess doing?" I can't hold back this question any longer. Can't keep fooling myself, I still miss her. Hell, I miss Jim, too, but there doesn't seem to be any solution to this.

"She's thinking about taking a leave of absence. Going away for a while. Jess doesn't have much hope that you'll talk to her ever again."

"But I..."

She's shaking her head. "I understand you, but who are you really punishing here? You're suffering as much as she is. Why keep the distance if you only end up hurting yourself?"

"Pretty stupid, huh? I don't want to leave her, or end my friendship with Jim, for that matter - but I just don't know if I could trust either of them, ever again."

Basically, she's saying the same things I've heard from Simon already, and Naomi, for that matter. What happened to my world? Is it really too narrow-minded to expect your wife and your best friend to keep their hands off each other?

~~~~~~~

If it had been 'just an affair', well, somehow I think that wouldn't have been so hard to take. If I could have been sure that it was over and done with - but they were practically building a new life together, living in the house that Jess and I had bought... That really hurts to think about it...

So I'm still not very happy with it when Megan brings Jim with her one evening. She says that they are going to have dinner and then head out later for a stakeout.

My first impulse is to drag my miserable self into the guest room and lock up after myself, but I manage to resist. My leave of absence won't last forever, and I can't afford to just quit the consultant's position. Shortly after the 'accident', I used to have those headaches, but they have been getting better for a while now, no excuse any longer to stay away from the station.

"Chief, I hope you're okay with this," Jim says hopefully.

I shrug. "There's not much I can do about it, is there? It's Megan's apartment."

"I was hoping we could talk."

That does it. What is he thinking? "About what? I don't understand you, Jim. What do you want from me anyway? You thought that since I've sacrificed my career for you, that you could have my wife, too?" I'm not yelling, though. I'm tired of this, tired of having to justify myself. Why can't he see that it's all so bad, because of all people, I would have never expected him to betray me this way?

"Come on, I never said you had to throw it all away!"

Oh right. After all these years, brought up in an argument, this is still a sore point. Megan has quietly retreated to her kitchen, giving us some space. I'm sure, she's heard Jim anyway.

"No, you didn't. You weren't talking to me at all."

"So what's different to what you've been doing?"

"You always accused me of things I wasn't guilty of. I guess that can't be said here."

Jim is silent for a moment, then he says, "I thought you were dead."

I'm taken aback at that moment, about the raw hurt that lies in the simple words. Jim might be a little late when it really comes to sharing his feelings, but when he does, he sure is honest to the bone. But I need more this time. I need to understand what really happened. And why they kept on meeting when I was already back in Cascade, trying to pick up the pieces of my life. Not for the first time.

"I just want you to know we tried everything. There was an old covert ops contact - and even he couldn't come up with anything. I didn't want to believe it, even when Jess told us that the one who'd freed her had said that all the other hostages had been killed. We were back in Cascade and I... I still kept dreaming of the wolf."

I've studied him for too long to not know that he's having a hard time keeping his emotions in check. That's not so bad, because I'm quite a bit touched myself. Honestly, I don't know if I want to hear any more of it - maybe that's exactly what I've feared all along - that I might begin to understand. Don't get me wrong - I'm still mad they kept on meeting behind my back, and that won't change. But for the time when I was still in the hands of those murderers, can I blame them?

"I sure didn't feel very alive then. Thinking about Jess - and you - was what kept me from going crazy, mostly."

"It was different than with Alex, I swear. I didn't know what to make of those dreams."

It's all so crazy; they held a wake for me, saying goodbye... "You and Jess," I say. "When?"

"A little less than a month before we got the news that you were alive," he returns calmly.

"Oh no, now you're lying. I know that you..." I grimace; there's no easy way to say this. "There was this... something. Before the vacation from hell."

"The attraction was there," he admits, "but we had decided that with all we'd lose, it wasn't worth it. Before Paraguay, right. Hell, everything went downhill from there... until we got the call from the embassy."

There's that question on the tip of my tongue, did he ever regret it, but I know the answer already. "I believe you. Really. But you just can't keep on sleeping with Jess, and keep the friendship with me at the same time."

"I love her," Jim says, and I'm holding my breath for a moment. There's no anger at this moment, no wish to punch him for his words - I just feel kind of empty. "And you're right, too. Jess knows that, I know it."

And I should be grateful? "So what's your conclusion?"

"That we have to go right now," Megan interrupts, giving us an intent look. "I see nobody's been punching anyone, so that must be a good sign. Jim, we can grab something on the way. Sandy - the fridge is yours."

I accompany them to the front door. Megan's already in the hall outside.

"You haven't answered my question."

"I want us to be okay," he says, then gently draws the door closed behind him.

~~~~~~~

I pick up the phone, punch in the numbers. Jess picks up on the second ring.

"Sandburg."

I used to be thrilled when I called her on the phone, and she'd answer that way. At the moment, the sound of her voice causes a mix of longing, sadness, and excitement. We had so little time together after my return from Paraguay. Well, it wasn't like she was alone, but still...

I'm being a coward here. "Who's there?" she asks, a bit uncertain now, and I hang up.

Well, I did try, right?

~~~~~~~

Making myself a salad in the kitchen, I think with a smile that I have Megan almost converted. Then again, she and I always had some common tastes in food. Jess, however...

It's silly, how the thought of her brings tears to my eyes almost immediately, and not mainly because she shares Jim's appreciation of unhealthy food. I remember the time when she'd lost the baby, refusing to eat more than what would leave a preadolescent starving, and me not having the slightest idea what was wrong. Jim knew - but not because she had told him; he'd figured it out on his own, with the use of his senses.

I sit down at the kitchen table, wondering if she's feeling as lonely as I am.

I will have to talk to her some time, I'm aware of that. It's not like Jim and I can make a deal about the future without even asking her, and -- oh no.

An avalanche of memories keep tumbling down onto me, no chance for escape. The bookstore and the dumb salesclerk. The first, happy days in Asunción. And the horror that followed.

Taking a look at the bigger picture, I find that I want to neither ban her nor Jim from my life, really.

If only they'd stopped sleeping together after they found out I was not dead.

~~~~~~~

It's dawn outside when Megan returns, waking me. I had fallen asleep on the couch, with her photo albums, never went to bed. She's cursing silently. At a closer look, I see flecks of color on her coat.

Megan groans. "Don't ask." She slumps onto the sofa next to me, glancing at the open album. "What are you doing here anyway?"

There's a picture of when Jess got her Detective's badge. The gang are all there, but despite the happy event, everybody looks kind of subdued. Bizarre to think about the reason. Another one of Jess and Megan, at the house. I wonder who took this one.

I force myself back to the present. "Took a trip down memory lane, even though I wasn't actually there... and what about you? Arrested any pre-schoolers tonight? That looks like a water-color attack."

"If only," she says tiredly. "We were on our way home when we got the call, and we were closest. Some stupid buggers playing war with these paintguns. Neighbor calls the police, and they gang up on him. If he doesn't lose an eye, he'll be lucky. Idiots fired on everything that moved."

"You okay?" I ask worriedly, while a thought is forming in my mind.

She gives me a crooked grin. "Just my pride hurt, but we got 'em all. None of them older them twenty-three, can you believe it? Anyway, I'm taking a shower, and then going to bed. Don't wake me, except if it's an earthquake."

"Is Jim okay?" I've just got to know. "Was he hit, too?" It was dark. He may have turned his vision way up. And there are chemicals in those colors...

"Yeah. But he handled it okay. Told me in no uncertain terms not to hover."

I feel my relief translate into a smile. "Sounds like he's alright, then. Going to bed sounds good, and... thank you, Megan."

"For what?" she returns, then gets up to take her well-deserved shower.

~~~~~~~

The phone rings only a few minutes later. It's Jim, and his voice sounds raspy, not quite right. "Sorry if I woke you," he says, "but I..."

I realize he's wrestling with those words, and hold my breath.

"I need you here, Chief."

If he's saying it like this, without much of a preamble, it must be really bad. I feel an anxious feeling forming in my gut, an almost instinctual reaction. I sure haven't unlearned being a Guide. "What is it? Megan told me about those kids you arrested. Have you been checked out by a doctor?"

"This is nothing a doctor could cure. I was hoping... you could come."

"Of course." The words are out my mouth before I know it. Am I stupid or just damn good at denial? No, I decide. This has nothing to do with the drama of him, Jess and me. "Give me twenty. I'll be there."

I leave a note for Megan and head out the door.

~~~~~~~

"There must have been some chemicals in those colors. Shot the dials to hell," Jim confirms, his face tight.

It's strange, really. At this moment, whatever still stands between us is utterly unimportant. "Are you in pain?" He's a little short of breath, I notice, laying a hand between his shoulder blades, letting it rest there very lightly. Jim flinches at first, but thank God, some of the tension is leaving his tight muscles.

"Here." He shoves up the sleeves of his sweater to expose a rash that must be painful. The color never actually touched his skin, but having it soaked into the fabric of his sleeves was enough.

Jim looks me up and down now, taking in my rumpled state. "I'm sorry," he sighs. "I wish I hadn't..."

"Stop it." My voice is firm, and to my surprise, he complies. "This is okay. You might have a lot to make up for, but you never have to apologize for anything like this." Anything that has to do with your senses, I wanted to say initially, but then I would have to count Alex in, and I sure as hell needed his apology back then. As much as I needed to make one for not telling him about her early enough, so that subsequent catastrophes could have been avoided. Maybe.

"We'll try to get those dials back into gear, but if that fails, I'll drive you to the hospital, is that understood?"

"Aye, aye, sir," he mumbles.

"Silly. Now close your eyes."

After only a split-second, he snaps them open again. "Can't," he wheezes. "The sensations - everything's more pronounced then."

Oh hell. "Doesn't matter," I say more confidently than I feel. "You're so experienced with that imagery stuff by now, you should be able to see it without closing your eyes. I want you to fixate on a point somewhere in this room. And then try to picture the dials - or anything else that works for you. We've worked with them a long time, so I know you can do it, but maybe you want to choose another image. Take the time you need."

All the while I keep up the physical contact, feeling it has a strangely calming effect on me, too. It's always been like that, since the early days. I'd be worried to fail, but every time I fall into 'Guide mode', or whatever you could call it, a sense of peace falls over me, and I just know I can do it.

"Do you have an image?"

There's a pause, but the silence between us doesn't feel uncomfortable. More like, contemplative. "Yes. Like a remote."

"That's good. Very good." I almost *fail* to control my enthusiasm at that moment. I clearly remember how strenuous it was at times to get Jim to accept those kinds of measures. We've come a long way since then. "Now pick the sense that bothers you the most at the moment. Choose one, and use your remote to bring it down. Then the next one, until you have all of them on a comfortable level."

Some of the old magic sparks between us when I see, and feel him, gradually relax more. It's really working! I invented the dials out of sheer desperation, because at that time, Jim was hurting and I felt like I needed to prove myself so badly, but it's different now. I know what I'm doing here.

And I just need to know this - "How long did you wait before calling?"

"A while," Jim says, which no doubt means a few hours.

I shake my head at him. "Man, you're crazy. I won't promise I always know what's to do, but if you do that again, I'll kick your ass."

"Just try," he returns smugly. You can't ignore the change in his demeanor, and I feel a twinge of pride. I'm still not so bad at being a Guide.

But that doesn't change everything magically. I get up, withdrawing my hand. "I think... I should go now."

"Chief - thank you. For this time, and all the other times. I'm really sorry," he adds, and we both know that he's not talking about anything Sentinel-related. There's hope in his expression, one I can't answer to yet, not the way he wishes me to.

"Yeah. But, you know, you shouldn't have stopped using your senses. You were denying who you are."

He stands up. "I was who I am without you. I thought you knew that."

Oh man, now don't get all sentimental on me...

"I'm using them now, and I still need my Guide. Stop denying the part you play in this."

I wish we could just get back to the way we were, and his words only throw it back at me how much I need the closeness, too. But I can't give in to that need. Not yet. I make my escape while I still can.

~~~~~~~

Late afternoon, Jim calls and asks me to join him for dinner. "My treat," he promises.

I have to chuckle at that. "What, are you trying to bribe me here?"

"Chief, you know what they say about gift horses, don't you? Anyway, I think I owe you one for the recent 'sentinel emergency'. Eight o'clock at Angelo's?"

"I'll be there," I say, feeling a silly grin spread over my face. It's good to feel that the ice is melting, and we can act normal around each other. Although, there's one thing I've got to clear before I make that step.

After we both hang up, I change and get into my car, driving the few minutes it takes to what was my home. Still is? I don't know. I pass the small front lawn, the garden sculpture Jim had been rolling his eyes about, until Jess confirmed that a half-naked Aphrodite gave a nice touch to the garden, and as long as she was made from stone, we're okay.

There's a little porch with a table, two chairs and a rocker. We used to joke that we'd be spending our old age sitting there, sipping coffee and doing crossword puzzles - or maybe not, considering the Cascade weather.

Over the back of the chair, there's a bright pink shawl. It belongs to Jess, a birthday present from Megan, I remember. Megan is one of the best friends I have, and Jess is still the woman I love, but I swear, those ladies have temporary fits of color-blindness.

I use my key to get in, almost calling out to see if anybody's home, when one particular shot of the photo gallery over the fireplace catches my attention. Our wedding picture. Jess had claimed, that since she wasn't so innocent anyway, there was no way she'd wear a white wedding dress. I was okay with that (but did not let her go shopping with Megan). Instead, she wore a dress that would have made Isabel Burton proud, traditionally Victorian. Hairstyle and all.

Thinking back, I wonder if it wasn't something like a play we acted out. It doesn't feel very real now, and that thought makes me incredibly sad.

"Best day of my life. You gave me more of a family than I ever had."

I turn around to find Jess standing before me, smiling a little wistfully. She's wearing jeans and a dark blue shirt, and is barefoot. She's gorgeous, and I hold my breath. It's like it's been years, not weeks, since I talked to her last. The silence is kind of awkward. "I was about to make myself some coffee," she says. "You want one, too?"

"Yes, thank you."

We sit down on the barstools in the kitchen, waiting for the coffee to be ready. "Cream?"

"Yes. Wait, stay put, I'll get it. I think I still know my way around the cupboards and the fridge."

"Sure."

We spend another five minutes circumventing the real reason I'm here; and for a moment, I wish I had the Sentinel senses, so they would give me any clue about what's going on inside of her.

Jess looks up from her coffee pot, and I almost cringe at the pain in her eyes. "I can't stand this any longer," she says, her voice small. "I've tried to talk to you so many times, you always refused. Now you've changed your mind - why? Are you going to tell me to move out?"

"Hell, no. You paid more for this house than I have." No, that didn't come out right. I didn't mean it as an accusation, but it comes across exactly like that, considering that Jim put in a substantial share, too. "What I mean is... no, I don't want you to move out. I came to ask you what it is *you* want - because I don't have a clue at the moment."

"I'm afraid you wouldn't believe me."

"Try me." I touch her hand briefly to back up my words.

"Do you still hate me?" she asks matter-of-factly.

"Oh, Jess. I've never hated you. I was just so - very disappointed." Still am, actually, but I don't need to say it.

Jess takes a deep breath, then continues. "I don't know if I can make you understand. See, when we met, it was like... something out of the movies, something you wouldn't believe could ever happen. The only family I had before was my sister who's living on the other side of the continent, but I didn't even know what I was missing until I met you, and then came to Cascade. Your friends welcomed me, becoming my own, and then there were... you and Jim."

She laughs a little, shaking her head as she remembers. "I've read lots of original Burton, too, and I was thrilled you both trusted me enough to tell me the truth, but I admit it now, I was still a little unnerved at times. You have this...connection, this deep bond, and even though I knew it wasn't anything sexual, I... I don't know, I was still jealous sometimes."

"You never said anything." I'm not sure what to make of it, but at least that's still rather safe territory. So I just keep listening.

"I didn't have the heart," Jess admits. "Not when you were trying so hard to do everyone justice. I began to understand eventually; thought it was beautiful - I actually still do."

When did that change? I want to ask. When did you start to see more than a friend in Jim - and he in you?

She sighs. "I can't tell you what really happened. We were all spending lots of time together, at work, away from work. Friends. You remember those nights out we all had together?"

I nod. Sure I do. We did that a lot, hang out on Saturday nights with the gang; Simon would join us when Daryl wasn't there, sometimes with Amy around, and we all kept speculating about Megan and Rafe. H would bring his wife, Gwen. Then there were Joel and Maggie. Jess and I had gotten lots of support, especially through the time when we still had to see the counselor about the shooting that had cost us so much.

Jess is blushing, shaking her head. "Hell, there is no easy way to say this. One of those nights, I looked at Jim and realized... that I wanted him."

"And then you found out it was mutual," I conclude, feeling light-headed all of a sudden.

"I never stopped loving you. Never. And that's why we agreed not to do anything about it. I didn't want to lose you - and Jim didn't want that either. So you and I went on a vacation."

There are tears in her eyes. "Maybe I'm not to blame for anything afterwards. Except when you were back, and I was so happy, and I still couldn't let go. I have no excuse for this."

Right, this conversation was my idea originally, but it seems to be doing Jess a lot of good to be honest. I feel shaky; this is all a bit too much of the truth. "What do you want?" I repeat my earlier question.

"I want to be with you," she says, a little calmer. "If you still want me, that is."

Oh, I do. I want her so much. I'm just scared what will happen if I say yes. Would we be able to get it right this time, and can I really live with all that has been? Can I trust again?

I lean close to drop a brief, soft kiss onto her lips. "I've never met any woman I wanted to grow old with, before you. And - Jim is the best friend I ever had. I'm still not sure how this is going to work out, and the issues of trust, but I hope there's a solution."

"Me, too."

We embrace, and then I leave to meet Jim for dinner while she prepares for a night shift.

~~~~~~~

A smile is playing over his lips; it's when I realize that he must know I've been seeing Jess; it's her scent he's recognizing. I refrain myself from sighing. I could be glad that he's obviously appreciating me talking to her. I could be mad that he's obviously very familiar with that scent.

"You had any more problems with your senses?" I ask first.

He's shaking his head. "No. Remote works like a charm." Jim leans a little closer. "You know, Connor's been badgering me about something for quite a while. I think it's a good suggestion, too, but it depends on what you and Jess are deciding to do."

I look at him questioningly. Hesitating for a moment, he says, "About getting away for a few days. I'd really like to do that. If you want it, too."

"Megan's been badgering me about that, too," I tell him.

"So?"

"I'd like to, but..." Part of me wants to jump right into it, the way I'd done it at another time. Things have changed though. The therapist told me something about what has been lost, must be mourned for, before you can get on with your life, given the time needed. I'd like to be that person that trusted so easily, in the good in people, in the extraordinary friendship I've found, a legend actually, and a relationship that was nothing like the 'train wrecks'.

But Jim has changed, too, in the time he just turned off his senses when he thought he'd never see me again. He seems to be confident that something good can still come out of all this; as if we've traded places, but still acknowledging his breach of trust. I hope he does, because if not, nothing of this will make sense.

I wish I wasn't so scared all the time. That all I had to live for is actually in the past, like those plans of becoming a famous anthropologist.

Jim picks up when I don't finish the sentence. "You remember what Incacha told me? A Sentinel will always be a Sentinel as long as he chooses to. Good. I choose. I can't do it without you, though, and I've long since stopped being mad about that fact."

"Jim." I stare at him. "Megan told me how you never zoned; that's because she was partnered with Jess in the first place, because you could handle it all alone."

"That's because I didn't use them anymore. And this is not just about zoning anyway. Hell!" he's shaking his head in a frustrated gesture. "I wish you could get that out of your head after all these years. This deal is not just about you getting me out of zone."

I can't deny it feels good to hear this; there's a 'but' somewhere in this, though. I'm wondering about the coincidence - Jim saying those words I would have needed a long time ago, in this situation. "When did you start using your senses again?" I ask before I can come up with a less friendly interpretation.

"The moment I first heard your heartbeat in the hospital in Seattle," Jim says promptly. "From that moment, it started making sense."

Oh, this is good. I know, I believe him that he's serious about it, and somewhere deep inside of me, there's the only answer I can give, yes, I want this special relationship we've had back.

"I wonder if, when one of those ancient Guides died, would their Sentinel take in their wife?" I say aloud, half-jokingly, half ruefully.

"I would have supported her anyway, best I could. But that has nothing to do with..." Too complicated. He chooses a lighter tone instead. "I suppose Jess wouldn't be so happy with the caveman theory."

"Probably not." Grief needs its space, alright, but somewhere along the line, you need to try and carry on. "We could at least try." Part of me has already decided that. Another part is still unsure.

In any case, I agree to the weekend trip. It can't get worse, right?

~~~~~~~

I call in at the station, and go with everyone afterwards. Jess sits next to me, and at one point, I take her hand under the table. We smile at each other like two people sharing a secret.

She and Megan are joking about redecorating the house while Jim and I head off into reclusion, and I feign shock. "No pink in the bedroom!" At least, I hope they're joking...

Jess and Jim - I don't know what I expected, like maybe they would undress each other with their looks, or something. That doesn't happen. The affection between them is obvious though. What they've shared since Paraguay - that time can't be turned back. That's what remained along with the occasional nightmare, that hollow feeling of regret. Why us, why me?

Eventually, I'll stop asking myself, the shrink encourages. He says it's so hard because I have to deal with it on two separate levels - the most important persons in my life starting a relationship when they thought I was dead - and not breaking it up immediately when they found out the contrary was true. On top of what happened in Asunción, that is.

But I'm alive. I'm safe. There's a life out there for me.

~~~~~~~

We head out Friday night, supposedly returning to work on Monday afternoon. Jim, after a long weekend - me, after a long time. We've rented the cabin for three days; it's way out in the wilderness, so we better get this right. If we end up fighting, pity. The next town will be miles away.

We arrive somewhere past midnight, both of us still too wired to sleep, so we inspect the rooms first, and then prepare a little snack. This cabin and a few others scattered over the area belong to a cousin of Henri's; he recommended this place to us a few years ago, and whenever we weren't going camping but preferred the comfort of a real roof over our heads, we'd choose to come here. It's all very familiar; even the fridge will be filled if you call ahead - which Jim obviously did.

We brought some stuff of our own; beer, and snacks. I've certainly become more tolerant during my life with Jess - she loves Naomi's vegetarian recipes too, but that doesn't mean she'll ever turn into a vegetarian herself.

I've been off the pain meds for a while, but I still notice the effect of the beer sooner than I would have expected. A little shudder passes through me when, for the first time, I really admit I'd taken them longer than I should have - the headaches had been almost gone, but I had welcomed the dulling effect.

And maybe it's just the tiredness; I could swear Jim feels it too. Nevertheless, it's good to be here, so far.

Memories of earlier trips tease the back of my mind, the easy camaraderie we'd once established effortlessly. I have taken the familiar passenger's seat in Jim's truck, and it doesn't make me feel any more dependent, or something. By the way - man, he's been driving Sweetheart for an enormously long time. Knock on wood, really.

We just sit in the cozy living room, slowly getting inebriated, talking about those glorious days of the past.

"It made one hell of a difference to have someone to understand what I was going through - still am, sometimes," Jim admits. "I never knew how to say it, but it made me feel guilty - because I knew I was dragging you into a world that wasn't your own."

"Oh, come on. I didn't exactly resist you, did I?"

He regards me thoughtfully over the rim of his bottle. "I was wondering for a while. What makes this seemingly bright person hang out with an aging cop with a bad attitude? I've never thought of the senses as something very special, so I came up with some - you might say, unlikely ideas." Jim winks at me, and I shake my head.

"I don't believe you. You really fell for what's our favorite gossip now?"

"That's just the most common, not the favorite," he returns dryly. "The favorite one is that this Sentinel thing was imposed by aliens, and you were just playing the male version of Dana Scully."

"What?" I gasp, before we both burst out into laughter. "I've never... God, stop this, it hurts to laugh. You just made that up, didn't you?"

"So sue me," Jim grins.

We are both relaxed, not having pursued any difficult subjects yet. Well, Jess has confirmed she'd like to make it work, too, but it's still not clear what 'it' is going to look like. "Remember when I told you I was going to get married?" I ask.

"Yes." The tone is more serious now.

"What I said then, is still true. I'm still not happy about - everything - but I won't let you down. You've said it before; it's a team thing, and I'm still in on it."

"Okay." That's typically Jim - he doesn't use many words, but I can hear the relief in this single one. I've learned.

"It doesn't mean I actually know what to do about the trust issue. Finding out you were meeting when I was barely keeping it together - that was painful. I'm still not sure what it's going to be like when we go home in two days."

Suddenly, I know I can't stand any reply, and especially no more apologies, because it doesn't change the facts. "I'm really beat," I say before Jim has a chance to answer. "I'm going to turn in. We can talk tomorrow."

"Chief, can't we--"

"Sorry. Not now."

~~~~~~~

Maybe it wasn't the best of ideas either. I toss and turn in the bed, and can't sleep. This weekend was supposed to bring a solution, and everybody's expecting it, even Simon and Megan, I guess.

I just don't know if I will be able to leave it all behind me, to turn off the thoughts, if Jess and I will be closer again in the future. Is there something she'll be missing?

The cabin is silent, too silent. Almost Sentinel-like, I can hear the bedsprings creak in Jim's room, or maybe the walls are just that thin. Yeah, didn't I have a tendency to overestimate myself? Oops, my shrink wouldn't be too happy about that line of thought. People who see their life just a tad more optimistically than they have reason to, are usually healthier, in the psychological sense. I guess that explains my momentary state.

Things have gotten better, no denying that, but regret is still an omnipresent company, like a ghost with cold hands that cling to me. I don't tell *that* to the shrink. He'd either ask me to contact the ghost and find out what he wants - or get me committed. No, thanks!

It's just before dawn when I'm finally exhausted enough to fall asleep - to find out that that wasn't a good idea, either.

~~~~~~~

//Food is rare, and we get just enough water not to starve, because that's not in their plan - they want to be the ones to determine time of death. There are six of us, two women, four men. I try to ask one of them what happened to Jess, but the answer is just a kick in the ribs from a booted foot.

After that, I don't ask any more. Don't hope anymore, because what can you actually hope for when death would be the most acceptable solution?

I hurt all over, but that becomes kind of irrelevant as they are starting to beat up another of the hostages in the corner. We share horrified looks. None of us would even have enough strength to help him, and still one of them stands there with his machine gun trained on us.

We hear every scream, see how they kick him over and over again, his upper body, his head.; not even stopping after he stops moving. A pool of blood is forming beneath him. He is dead. I see my own fear reflected in the other men's eyes.

It says 'who's going to be next?'

-- It's okay, *I'm* okay, I'm chanting silently, as I struggle to wakefulness. Gasping a little, but I haven't screamed. My heart is beating fast, but it doesn't turn out to be a full-blown night terror of the kind I've had before, when it took me ten to twenty minutes to get my bearings.

Old habits die hard. The door to my room is opened carefully, and Jim steps inside. Hesitant, unsure. Right, it's been a while since he had to deal with stuff like this. Together, that is. "Can I... do anything?" he asks quietly.

It used to be so easy, to just let go for a while, let Jim handle things. At the moment, however, this dividing of roles just pisses me off.

"No. I needed a rescue months ago," I all but snap, and know I'm out of line even before his jaw tightens. Even in the sparsely lit room, I can see he's gotten pale, and I want to take those words back, but he turns on his heel, leaving the room.

I punch the pillow in frustration, then, a little calmer, I say, "Damn, Jim. You know I didn't mean it." I don't raise my voice any, quite certain he's still turned everything way up. Sure enough, the footsteps stop, and then turn.

"You have every right to mean it," he says tiredly. "There had to be something..."

"No." Oh, sometimes this guy drives me crazy. Why not take the blame for something else? "Megan told me about the trip you both took to Asunción. I know there wasn't anything you could do."

I can tell from Jim's posture that he still doesn't quite believe me. This used to be easier in the past, even after Alex and the dissertation mess. For the first time I realize that the horrible incident has not only changed my life irrevocably, and Jess', but also those of the ones who stayed - friends like Jim and Megan, or Naomi - they were trying to get on with life after my alleged death.

Naomi tried to approach the subject once, but I brushed her off, did not want to hear how Jim and Jess did not stumble into an affair, but were going that step very deliberately when they thought they'd never see me again. Not right away. I might bear the more visible traces, but there's pain, and then there's pain.

I set my feet on the floor, then get up. "It was the worst time in my life ever, there's no denying that, but it is in the past, and I don't need the guilt from you. I need a friend I can rely on - and I hope that's gonna be you."

"If you let me."

There's silence for a moment, as we're both aware what's at stake here. What we're asking of each other.

"For a while I've been trying to convince myself that my life would be better without you and Jess. I didn't succeed. But if this is going to work... I need to know I can trust you. Both of you."

"I get you, Chief."

I know he does. I know what it takes to let go of someone as wonderful as Jess, because I couldn't. "Thank you," I whisper, Sentinel-soft.

And that's it. I guess Megan would be okay with the results of this unwritten contract, and we should be, too. Outside, the darkest moment of the night has passed, appropriately, but what I really need at this point is to sleep for eight hours straight. With the adrenaline rush beginning to fade, I feel myself shaking.

"There's another blanket in the wardrobe," Jim says somewhat worriedly. "You could have the other room, there's a fireplace in there, too, so that--"

He breaks off abruptly to pull me close, and I don't have any objections. For the first time in a long time, it just feels right. I want to be here.

~~~~~

I swear, we couldn't get the fire going. There was *no* other comforter in the wardrobe, as Jim had predicted, and it was a lot like the old days, when he said, with a sigh of the long-suffering, "The things I do for you, Sandburg..."

But that's the way it always had to be, we have to joke about the fact that we need to reconnect on every level, eventually, as Sentinel and Guide.

Add to that the fact that it had gotten lousily cold, and I'm actually not afraid of falling asleep once more. That's got to be a first, us, spending the night in the same bed even though there is a second bedroom.

I smile in the darkness, and close my eyes. The trust I've been missing all the time - here it is.

~~~~~~~

The sound of breaking glass startles me from my sleep.

For a moment, I'm unable to move, unable to breathe, too much of this is a reminder of what happened in Asunción. Anxiously, I wait for the sound of gunfire, the sight of heavily armed men storming the room and no chance for escape for you and a loved one.

By the time I get my breath back, and the image of this room reassures me, Jim is awake, too, and listening. Finger to his lips, he quietly gets up after picking up his gun, and motions for me to follow him.

Okay. My limbs are cooperating now that I've determined that it's not going to happen again. But what was it? An animal? A human? -- A ghost? For Christ's sake, keep it together!

Even if it's not the repetition of my worst nightmare, it could still be dangerous. Part of me wants to curl up somewhere and hide, but another is surprised, stunned even that Jim still seems to trust me that much - to not fall apart, to back him up the way he, so far, could always expect me to.

At the door, he pauses. I take a step backwards, before he yanks the door open, weapon drawn.

"No, don't shoot!"

The voice belongs to a young woman who, given her shabby state, has spent the better part of a couple of weeks exposed to the elements: Her hair and clothes are dirty; there are scratches on her arms and face. Raising shaking hands, she can't be much older than sixteen, seventeen.

And then I think: I must have looked like this when those soldiers found me in Paraguay.

Jim put away his gun immediately, obviously coming to the same conclusion that she isn't much of a threat even if she did disturb our well-deserved sleep.

"What are you doing--"

He doesn't get much further, as her eyes roll back in her head, and she passes out.

~~~~~~~

Jim lays her down gently on the couch in the living room, while I run to fetch the blanket off his bed which hasn't been slept in at all, and then heat some milk. We'll take her to the hospital later. We have both agreed that it'll probably make more sense to get her warmed up a little first.

She slowly returns to awareness, trying to bolt upright on the sofa, but hindered by an obvious attack of vertigo. "Fuck," she swears, even if the tone of her voice lacks the vehemence to back up the word.

"Now lie still," Jim chides gently. "You're in no condition to be traipsing around."

"And you're what, my Dad?" She stares defiantly back at him through her dark eyes.

"No, I'm the cop whose cabin you just broke into," Jim informs her, mildly amused.

The girl doesn't share the sentiment, that much is sure. She slumps back onto the sofa with a frustrated moan. "Great, just my luck. Now you're going to arrest me?"

"At the moment, no. I'd like to know for just how long you've been living on the streets. And if there's anybody I should call for you. I'm Detective Ellison, by the way, and this is my partner Blair Sandburg."

Jim handles this situation near perfectly, I think. This would have been my part, the connecting. On the other hand, he did just fine with Jess, didn't he? Oh man. It will take a little while longer for this voice inside of me to shut up.

Did he just say 'partner'? I haven't heard that in a while.

"No one would be interested in that phone-call," the girl says solemnly. "Partner, huh? You guys playing for the other team? Fine with me, it should be safe to spend the night." She takes a sip of the milk then, sweetened with honey, and grimaces. "That's for children!"

All before we can clear up the misunderstanding. "It *is* safe," I say, "but you misunderstand. We work together."

"Uh-huh. Two bedrooms, but one of the beds hasn't been slept in."

Right. She was certainly quick investigating the place. I look at Jim, and he shrugs with a grin. She's obviously made up her mind. "What's your name?"

"Caitlin," she offers eventually. "And I told you the truth, nobody would want to hear from me. I'm sorry for the invasion, but I really needed a roof over my head tonight. So you really don't mind if I...?"

End of story, she stays, and after a long shower, Caitlin sleeps on the couch in the living room. Tomorrow, there's a visit to the hospital on the agenda. Everything else will have to wait. We're out of cell phone range, and she obviously doesn't like sharing information about herself.

I'm not sure what kind of destiny's message this is. In any case, our weekend has been cut short, and I wonder if we really solved everything we needed to.

~~~~~~~

In the morning, Caitlin claims that there's nothing wrong with her and that she won't go to the hospital, no way. She says that there's a friend she can ask to take her in, but I don't need Sentinel senses to determine she's lying.

"In any case, you're coming back to Cascade with us," I say. "You can't stay out here."

"None of your business," she mumbles, but her longing is so raw, it's impossible not to feel it.

"What about your family? Maybe it's possible--"

"No!" she interrupts me harshly. "I don't have anyone. And it's okay that way."

"You're half-starved," Jim says matter-of-factly. "If you're not sick now, it's bound to happen through the winter months. Come with us to Cascade, and we'll find a way. Hook you up with the local shelter."

Caitlin stares at her plate as if she's suddenly lost all of her appetite. "You can't help me, and I can't go back to the city. It's not safe."

"But why?" Jim speaks the question that's on my mind, too.

She gets up, gaze darting around as if looking for an escape, then she starts to pace the room. Jim and I share a look, and for a moment, everything that stood and may still stand between us, just disappears, it's like the old days when we worked together like perfect clockwork. It can be that way again, the chance is here, in our hands.

"You can trust us. There are ways to keep you safe."

"I don't know." Hesitating a little still, she finally relents, "I saw something. I know... about a couple who bought a baby, because they found the legal adoption process too slow and complicated. The people who coordinate everything - they sent someone after me. Wrecked my apartment, and I got scared."

With all understanding, the story sounds a bit... strange. Then again, we've seen stranger things, right? Jim looks a bit skeptical, too. "You got names?"

Caitlin sits down again, her gaze shifting nervously back and forth, as she's wringing her hands in her lap. "Only if you promise to help me. Those people are capable of anything."

"Breakfast first," Jim says firmly. "Back in Cascade, we'll take you to a doctor, and then I want the whole story. You'll be okay, Caitlin."

She gives him one of her rare smiles. There is a twinge of... something, like jealousy, inside of me, and it has nothing to do with this girl.

~~~~~~~

We get to hear about half of the story before we're interrupted by a knock on the door. There's a bit of the old reaction still there, a minute flinch that only Jim can perceive. He rests a hand on my shoulder for a brief moment.

"No bad surprise, Chief," and Caitlin frowns a little, but I know he's not talking about her breaking in.

He goes to open the door to--

Megan and Jess. Jim has already heard them. Everybody is kind of stunned, including me.

"Well, I'd have reconsidered this if I'd known you already have company," Megan says, and Jim is rolling his eyes at her.

He introduces everybody while I get up to greet Jess. It isn't like it's so long since I saw her last, but it does feel like ages. We kiss, and she's looking me up and down, smiling. I remember how that smile stole my breath that day in the bookstore. Whatever else has happened, it still has the same effect. There's something reassuring in that.

"I'd hoped you'd be glad to see me."

"Definitely. I... I've missed you." That I don't just mean the last few days, is understood. I know it was right, and so very important to clear some things with Jim, at least to the extent to which it's possible at the moment, but I'm so very glad she's here now.

But we take it slow, are careful with each other. Share a hug like good friends would. We're still in dangerous territory.

Still, I take her hand as we go to the table, where Jim and Caitlin have Megan already included in the planning of the next few steps. And then Jess tenses beside me as she really looks at Caitlin.

The younger woman greets her unsuspectingly, but Jess remains wary, and I can't shake the feeling that somehow, she knows Caitlin. I look at her questioningly, but she shakes her head.

~~~~~~~

The atmosphere has changed; I'm not sure how to define it. Surely Jess isn't concerned about Jim and I taking in Caitlin for the night, and giving her a meal? I don't understand it. While eating, we go over the girl's story again.

At some point, Jim goes to make some more coffee, and--

I can't believe this; I must be staring at that moment, because Jess gets up, giving Caitlin a slightly unnerved look, before she follows him. They've both sworn to me how much they want my trust again, and now... no, it must be completely innocent. But while I never stopped feeling safe in Jim's presence, this gut reaction tells me that it's not completely okay. Mind battles with emotion - they wouldn't... would they?

Megan gives me an intent look, then says, "Hey, Sandy, there's no more sugar in the pot. Could you get me some more?" It's safe, she's meaning to say, and I hope to God that she is right. It takes all my concentration not to sink back into the image of me, opening the door to the loft, stepping inside and seeing...

No. It's never going to happen again.

When I enter the kitchen, Jim and Jess both look up, but not guiltily. Her lipstick isn't smeared any. I breathe a sigh of relief.

"Close the door, Chief," Jim says curtly.

I do as he says, still not getting what's going on.

"Seems like Caitlin hoaxed us pretty good."

"What?"

Jess leans against the kitchen counter. "My case some months ago. She tried to kidnap a baby, claiming it was her own, but there was absolutely no proof. She was committed to Conover, escaped a while ago."

"Are you sure it's her?"

"I am," Jess returns somewhat defiantly. "It's not like she's extremely dangerous or anything, but the girl is crazy."

I shrug. "I don't know. What she said about this adoption agency, didn't sound that crazy. We should check it out, at least. And don't tell me I trust too easily." That I direct at Jim, as an answer to what I can read in his face. "Why would she stay here even after she knew we're with the police? You believed her, too, right?"

"That was before I heard Jess' side of it."

"Then we should confront her," I suggest. "Whatever the truth is, she should see a doctor."

"A psychiatrist, in any case." Jess' tone is disapproving, which makes me all the more curious.

~~~~~~~

"God, I knew this was a mistake! Damn it, I'm not crazy!"

"No? You stole that baby girl right out of her carriage. Made all kinds of claims, but surprise, no mention of a father, DNA tests didn't match. You know, it's not like we can just take everything we want!"

Caitlin is sobbing. "I don't know how that could happen. They... they bought my baby, and I was just taking her back."

"I know you're not lying," Jim says, and Jess flashes a look of pure anger at him.

I know he's been using his senses to come to this conclusion, and all of us know that it's unlikely he's wrong. Jess, too, even though she's practically vibrating with emotion, so angry she's on the verge of crying herself.

//It's not like we can just take everything we want.// Caitlin claimed for herself what we'll never have, and worse, it looks like her claims were justified, if not her means of trying to achieve them.

"Still, we have to get back to Cascade, and see what we can find out. I suggest we do that now." Jim stalls any further discussion effectively.

~~~~~~~

Without many words, we agree that Jim and Megan will take Caitlin with them; Jess and I will follow in her car. I'm glad we'll have some time together, considering what has just happened, my own insecurity, and her reaction to Caitlin's story. We sit in the car for a moment, while the truck disappears into the distance. How far is Jim's range of hearing under these conditions? We haven't done any tests in a while.

Jess stares out of the window solemnly, until I gently touch her shoulder, and she turns to me.

"Do you want me to drive?" I ask.

She shakes her head, but leans into the touch. It feels so good, natural. It's almost like I can feel her emotion through it, and maybe I can; in those first, unblemished months we had together, it was like that at times, like we could read each other's minds. Jess doesn't answer, but leans closer; she hasn't even fastened her seatbelt yet.

"Maybe we find out that the baby really belongs to Caitlin. And if we do, her methods were wrong, admittedly, but then she was right about the agency, too."

"I know," Jess sighs, straightening up a little. "But there are some things she didn't tell us back then. I know my job."

"Yes, you do." I reach up to play with her hair that's falling down freely to her neck. "I didn't say otherwise. But this hasn't got anything to do with how the job was done, has it?"

"Sometimes I just think... if I had been a little faster. If I'd seen Griffin picking up that gun; I should have--"

"No, Jess." I'm not sure how much of it I can take, but that's definitely a bridge we need to cross.

She laughs mirthlessly. "Weird, isn't it? I was never obsessed with having a child, before. I always told myself it would be okay, but if it doesn't happen, it's alright, too. It makes one hell of a difference if you can't make that decision yourself anymore."

"But it's not your fault. It never was." That, at least, I am sure of. I try to understand, though don't really think this is our main problem at the moment. Nevertheless, Caitlin's story brings up some unbidden memories. I haven't forgotten this overwhelming fear of losing her. God. If I keep this up, I'll lose it any minute. But while we're at it...

There's something about Asunción I never dared to ask her. And I don't dare now. Between us, we don't know much more than that the other hostages were killed; the soldiers who stormed the camp before I was freed, had confirmed finding the bodies of one woman and three men.

Jim and Megan have never talked about the horrible possibilities, nor has Jess revealed anything, but sometimes I'm still afraid of the unspoken. There is no chance to talk about it now, but intuitively I pull her closer - almost expecting resistance, but those are *my* projections - thinking I never want to let go again. Never.

"Let's go home," I say.

~~~~~~~

 

IV

 

"Are you all sure you know what you're doing?" Simon asks, meaning all of us, but primarily Jess and Blair. We have made some progress in every department. It's good to have Blair back at work. It's a bit complicated now to have Jess there, too, but we have all been making amends. It is going to work. It has to, and not just because Caitlin's case is becoming more and more complex.

We've been investigating the private adoption agency Fielding & Star, and nothing illegal has turned up so far, but it's too much of a coincidence that all proof of the DNA test that was made back then, has disappeared. Caitlin has a public defender now, Carolyn King. She's very capable, and has organized that the young woman doesn't have to go back to Conover while the investigation's results are still pending.

Now we need something solid to back up her story, and Jess came up with the idea that she and Blair should pose as a rich couple who want a child at any price.

Simon's question means more than the difficulties that could come up for them about this hitting too close to home. What he's really asking is if he can trust us to leave personal issues out of it, while the four of us are working closely together. Which will also determine the future of this unit.

Blair looks at me for a brief moment, then he says with determination, "It's not only about Caitlin. We have to make sure it doesn't happen to other families. I can't believe they just took her child away without really checking if she was capable of taking care of her. We have talked about it, and this is the best way."

I wonder if there was ever a danger of something like this happening to Naomi, having her child taken away from her because she was a single mom with unconventional ways.

"That's right, sir," I continue. "They will be unsuspecting - if we're lucky, letting down their guard soon." I have had my doubts too, but Blair and Jess really want to do it, and it's probably a good thing.

Simon looks around, seeing the same resolve in all our faces.

"Alright then. Get your cover story ready, and then contact the agency."

~~~~~~~

These are chaotic times, and all we can do is go with the flow. When Jess and I arrived in Cascade, me going back to Megan's apartment, there was a moment of hesitation when I saw the longing in her eyes.

Saw my own mirrored, there. I embraced her for a long time, before we shared a hopeful kiss. "Come back soon," she whispered, and I promised her I would.

Now, the cover story.

Not a shred of doubt that we'd be credible in our roles. There is still a strain on our relationship, and even though we've solved the baby issue as best we can - everything that has happened, Paraguay and after, has made us vulnerable.

Here and now, it will give us an advantage.

The couple we'll pose as will have tried every possible way to get their own child, but when everything failed, decided for an adoption. It's just that they are sick and tired of the waiting, and hoping, and being disappointed again. They have money and won't hesitate to pay, lots of it, to hasten the process. A sad story.

Going clothes shopping, however, is actually fun.

I think I'm learning to relax in Jim and Jess' presence, even though that scene at the cabin is still vivid in my mind. Fortunately, nothing like that has happened since. Funny, I never thought about this much, but Jim has grown up with more wealth than Naomi could ever dream of, and he *is* the man to consult, knowing the right stores and all.

I feel a bit like going to a carnival, not really comfortable in those kind of clothes, but I must admit there's a certain fascination in the face of such luxury. Naomi would cry. I look like a Republican's favorite son.

Jess comes from the Ladies' section of the store, wearing a red business suit, mini skirt and matching high heels, her hair made up into a French roll.

I've always thought of her as beautiful, and that's not depending on the clothes she wears or her make-up, because, as trivial as this may sound, it *does* come from the inside - but, this is a side of her I haven't seen before.

Turning sideways, I realize that Jim seems impressed, too. I suppress every ugly emotion that wants to have its say at the moment, and walk over to her.

"No worries, mates," Megan says confidently. "You'll have them eating out of your hands." Her expression, however, says that she has noticed the little by-play as well, and she shoots a warning glance at Jim.

~~~~~~~

Fielding and Star are both lawyers, with flawless vitae. Megan and I have interviewed them, and they didn't give an inch. They had openly admitted that they had legally worked the adoption of a child for the Mitchells, the couple Caitlin accused of having bought her baby after social services took the girl away from her.

Jess and Blair have an appointment for tomorrow morning.

They're getting closer again, obviously. I respect that, am even glad about it, -- there's a but, you say? I don't have the right. All the promises I have made, I sure remember them. The time with Jess, those weeks when we weren't really guilty of anything, they seem like a dream now.

Because thinking that Blair was dead never felt real to me at all, and I know, right now is how it's supposed to be, well, not right now maybe, but we're getting there.

If you still hear a 'but', keep quiet about it. Just. Shut. Up.

~~~~~~~

"You're driving me crazy," Jim says with genuine affection. He gets up, walking over to me, and then starts to adjust the tie for me. "See? It's not that complicated."

"Easy for you to say, oh great Sentinel," I mumble, but don't feel insulted. This simple gesture is more like something out of the past, reassuringly normal. I watch as he makes a perfect knot, and all of a sudden, the thoughts intrude. Those hands are familiar to me. Their touch is. They have touched Jess, too, in a not so innocent sense.

Hastily, I step back. "Thanks, I think it's fine."

That's quite an exaggeration, but we do have a job to do now.

~~~~~~~

Tori Fielding herself welcomes Blair and Jess.

Megan and I sit in the car outside, and I listen in to the conversation. Nothing much will happen today. It would be too suspicious if they asked for other options right away.

Jess' voice is sounding a little strained as she is relaying the story so far, an odyssey through doctor's offices and hospitals, and always with the same results. There's a rustle of clothes to be heard as Blair reaches over and takes her hand.

Ms. Fielding explains to them the usual process of adoption, about all the reports that are required, and the court hearing afterwards; then Blair speaks up, "That's a long time. I must admit we're quite fed up with waiting."

"I'm sorry, those are the usual proceedings. You understand we have the interests of the future parents in mind, but also those of the children."

"With us, a child would have everything," Jess returns a bit curtly. "I work half days only, and we can afford a nanny. We have a lot to give - love, a home. I feel like we've been constantly fooled - I mean, there are so many children born into families that neglect and abuse them."

"Unfortunately, that's true," Fielding concedes. "And many couples who would provide a good home, can't have children. Well, that's why we are here. Of course, you are tired of waiting. I understand. But in your case, I'm quite hopeful."

"I think we should at least give it a try," Blair says, his voice much calmer than his heartbeat.

"What choice do we have?"

The first contact has been made, and it worked like a charm. We're still a damn good team, and there's hope in that.

~~~~~~~

"Mister and Miss Cascade PD," Henri drawls as we all enter the bullpen.

Jess and Blair are looking tired, but the effect is intense nevertheless; there's more than one colleague staring open-mouthed. They're looking like they've come right out of a fashion show, and the style obviously worked on Fielding.

Jess slumps into her desk chair and takes off her pumps with a sigh. "The things you do for the job... I hope the department will pay for the hospital bills if I break my goddamn bones in these things!"

Blair bends down to whisper something in her ear that makes her smile, and I restrain myself, forcing myself not to listen. Right, it *is* possible.

I turn to say something to Megan, when Simon opens his office door, interrupting the friendly bantering. "Ellison, Sandburg, both of you, Connor - my office."

We all share a grin at this 'invitation'.

~~~~~~~

Simon is quite satisfied with the course of events so far. "Looks like they bought it. Good work. If there is dirt, you're going to find it."

I turn up my hearing just a notch further - using the remote - and find Jess' heartbeat a little fast. None of my business, really. We all knew it before, that this would be hard on them both; they chose this assignment. Not much to do about it now.

Later, I run into her in the break room, unintentionally. "How are you doing?" I ask, leaving the door ajar behind me. Don't let it be said that there's something secret going on.

"Okay," she says with a shrug. "I hope we can wrap this up soon. Must be hell for..." Jess interrupts herself, obviously not wanting to admit that her feelings about Caitlin have changed. "At least, it can't harm to know the adoption law a little better. Might be important someday."

At the moment, it seems unreal, but a few months ago she and I had talked about a future together. But you can't have everything, and I had vowed to pay whatever it might take for the miracle that occurred. I don't regret anything - and there will always be the memory.

"You could keep it in mind," I agree.

"Maybe." In a frustrated gesture, she kicks the vending machine when it fails to spit out the chocolate bar. "Damn thing." Even in swearing, she is beautiful - but there is a certain distance between us now. It's better that way. We have risked too much anyway, and still came out of it better than you'd expect.

Jess turns to lean against the vending machine. Her gaze is thoughtful. "It's strange, you know. I always thought becoming a parent was about choices. But that doesn't seem to apply to the Mitchells, or Caitlin - or me. As long as I believed I could do whatever I wanted to - it wasn't even that important to me, crazy, isn't it?"

"Seems quite normal to me."

Jess smiles at that. "I haven't thought about it in a while, but with this case, it seems very close now. I remember how I was late with my period, and I was going to check with my gynecologist. There was never time, and all of a sudden - it's gone. Forever. Not that there was so much time later..."

"Here you are." Blair tries to sound nonchalant, but he knows that I know it's feigned, accepting it with weary resignation. "Jess, can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure," she says, a hopeful tone in her voice now.

Time for me to go.

In any case, he's the better partner for that conversation. Time to let go of all the confusion - as I watch the two of them for a single moment, before I retreat to my desk, hearing down to normal, and I think that maybe, I wasn't fooling myself at all. Seeing him alive, and together with the woman he loves, is more than I could have dared to hope at times.

And it *is* a miracle, even if I still love her myself. We can be friends.

~~~~~~~

Jess is wearing her reading glasses as she's studying the Washington adoption laws, totally absorbed in the text. She's looking incredibly sexy, and I can't help but step behind her, touching her under the guise of giving her tense muscles a relaxing massage.

She sighs in bliss. "That's it exactly. I think I'll call it a night. These things don't get any more exciting, and I'm beat."

I pause for a moment, wondering if she'll ask me to stay. Jess is very still, too.

We have been further preparing for our roles, and came to our house for dinner, and now... I lean down to embrace her from behind and Jess closes her eyes for a brief moment. "Will you make me breakfast tomorrow?" I whisper, running my hands down her arms.

Jess smiles rather invitingly. "Only if you make the coffee. I know you hate mine."

"Jim told...?" There's a bit of uncertainty left.

"No. Woman's intuition. Why do you think I have taken to getting up later than you? Anyway..." Jess gets up and walks around the couch to stand in front of me. "We can discuss that later. It's a while yet until breakfast."

"How fortunate," I say, drawing her close. The feel of her in my arms, though familiar, feels astonishingly new; I'm breathless with want like a love-sick teenager. Her eyes are wide and dark; I'm thinking that there's something between us that just couldn't be harmed by all the catastrophes that happened, Griffin, Paraguay - and even the betrayal I'm still trying to come to terms with. But I will.

In the end, we still choose each other.

~~~~~~~

'You ever have one of those times, where with a woman, you know, if things had turned out differently, she could've been the one?' Jim had asked me a long time ago, when he just had found Lila again, but seemed to be guessing already that there would be no happy ending. To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about, and my answer was that stupid.

'Not really, but it sounds special.'

His return even less surprising, 'Why did I even bother asking you?'

It's all there now... I remember the day Jess and I got married, the party afterwards, feeling so happy, I thought I'd burst. We were a little tipsy, much later, when we all but fell onto the fresh sheets. Giggling silly when we realized Naomi must have slipped into the room earlier, burning sage.

"The vibes are very good in here," Jess said, her voice dark with emotion and lust.

Neither of us had really 'waited', but it was special nevertheless - as if we were wiping the slates clean, and nothing before really mattered any longer.

I also understand now why Jim thought it was bizarre to read your girlfriend from your diary. No one wants to hear about the past lovers of the ones you care for - it makes the past come so close all of a sudden, unbidden.

The past lingers in the here and now, as it comes to mind again that Jess hasn't actually slept alone in this bed while I'd been missing. Presumed dead.

Jess feels it, too, and she casts me a troubled gaze, but doesn't say anything.

How can I explain to her that I still have doubts that she wants to be here, with me, no regrets? Jim has been online, he told me, ever since he first heard my heartbeat in Seattle. A few years back, I remember myself jealously wondering what kind of skills those senses would facilitate... oh no, this is silly, and I know it.

It's not like she didn't have a choice in the matter, and we're here for a reason. All those promises, I've got to decide someday if I want to believe them, or doubt forever. It's just - difficult.

She snuggles closer, and I wrap my arms around her. Our minds might be in the way every now and then, but our bodies surely remember. We belong together. All we have to do now is to remember this truth.

~~~~~~~

"You know, I'm still not sure about this."

"What?" I ask, acting perplexed. "Adopting a child? I thought we'd agreed on this."

"I... I don't know. There seem to be so many hurdles," Jess says with a tone of despair in her voice that rings just a tiny bit too true. We are clearly on the right path - but that doesn't mean this case doesn't still hit close to home. "Maybe - we should check with another agency."

"I'm sorry, but they all have to obey the same laws," Fielding reminds her sympathetically.

"And there's absolutely no way to quicken the process?" My part again. "I mean... if this is about money..." It's not like the fees of a private agency are that small anyway, but everyone in the room knows I'm talking about something else.

"Mr. Sandburg!" Tori Fielding shows her indignation. "What you're suggesting is illegal. We can't make an exception just because one couple is wealthier than another. We have to keep in mind what's best for the child, too."

"A child should be with loving parents. We'd be those parents, and we have waited long enough." Jess rises, showing that she's upset. "I appreciate your help, Ms. Fielding, but I don't think this is the right way for us. There must be another way. Blair?"

"I think my wife is right. Thank you for all you've done so far. Bye, Ms. Fielding."

"I'm really sorry," she says, "And I hope you'll rethink your decision. Personally, I don't have the slightest doubts about you. It's just that we have to play by the rules."

As we leave her office, I feel kind of subdued, and see the same emotion reflected in Jess' eyes. We had no idea, really. Of course it's wrong and illegal, but I think at that moment, we both understand a little of what it's like to be desperate for a child. All the counseling we had earlier is quite helpful, and the choice was taken out of our hands before we'd even made a decision for ourselves anyway - and still there's this bit of sympathy for couples who want to be parents so badly, they forget about everything else.

We're not here to judge them though; this is about stopping people who make money out of other people's misery.

And if Fielding has taken the bait, we've come one big step closer to the goal.

~~~~~~~

We're all sitting in Simon's office when Blair makes the call. The atmosphere is tense; a lot depends on this conversation, and everyone in the room is aware of that. Megan has been very impartial ever since she took Blair in, but then again, that's just her, really very practical by nature. You can't change the past, so you do what's possible in the present.

Jess and Blair want to wrap up this case, you can see it in their eyes. Hopefully, that moment will come soon. I can't fool myself; there are moments I wish my friendship with Blair could have been left untouched, and I still could have been with her - but that's not in the picture. Damage control is important right now - and so far, it seems to be going well.

They were five minutes late today, came in the same car.

"Ms. Fielding?" Blair says now. "I was hoping we could talk once more."

"You changed your mind?"

"Jess doesn't know I'm calling you. Look - I can't imagine that this is the only way. It's not fair. You've seen our house, you know about every doctor we've been to - we have so much to give to a child, and honestly, we don't care if it's a baby or a toddler, from the US or Guatemala or wherever. Isn't there *any* way you can help us?"

It isn't all show, that's what makes this assignment so difficult, but Blair handles it excellently.

And, ironic as it is, the real life background has helped a lot. "Please," he says, and Jess shifts a little closer to him.

There's a pause. Now!

"What I told you before is still true, Mr. Sandburg. It's the usual procedure, and if you decide for it, we'll be more than happy with accompanying you through it. Everything else is illegal."

"What if I, ... if we don't care?"

Another long pause, then Fielding crumbles. "We should meet, but not in the office. You got something to write on? I'll tell you the address. There might be a way... I can't promise you anything yet. And bring your wife."

"No problem. Thank you so much."

"And remember, this conversation never took place. We don't usually handle things like this, but I understand your pain. Let's see what we can do for you."

As he hangs up the phone, much of the tension in the room dissipates; everybody's relieved. It was what we've been waiting for. Blair and Jess embrace for a moment, and Simon grumbles, "You've got time for that later. Now go and get these creeps. Ellison, Connor, you're with them."

"Yes, sir." As I get up to follow Megan after our respective partners, I remember a time when *this* had been a dream, an illusion out of reach. It has come true now. We all have lots of reason to be gratified with the present. And then, out of the blue, the reality I've just praised disappears to make room for the jungle. I see the panther, prowling, searching -- for something I can't determine yet.

Then the wolf's howl resounds, and I know there's danger.

"Jim? Jim, are you with us? What is it?" I'm jolted back to the present as Blair's concerned voice breaks through the haze.

~~~~~~~

I guess it'll never cease to amaze me how, in those situations, my voice, and my touch are the only things that will eventually make Jim shake the spell and come out of the zone, or vision, in this case.

Even though I felt something had been interrupted by Caitlin's appearance, some thread that needed to be resumed, in this department, nothing has changed. The certainty fills me with confidence - and not a little pride. But anyway --

"What did you see?"

"I'm not sure." Jim is still pale, as he relates what he remembers of the vision.

"Was it anything like it was with Alex?" There's not much time for finesse now; we've got to meet Fielding in half an hour, and it's a fifteen-minute drive at best.

"No. Not another Sentinel. Just... that there'd be danger." He shrugs, frustrated. "Those things don't come with a translation, as you know. I don't think it has to do with the meeting though. They haven't even gone into details with you."

"We'll talk about it later," I say. "Let's go now."

~~~~~~~

Fielding has brought her partner, Martin Star, and another woman who is introduced to us as Maggie Jameson from Social Services. The building where we meet has nothing of the luxury that Fielding and Star reside in. It's a small office on the same floor as an insurance agency, small windows, all in all looking rather depressing.

Appropriate, I think. Jess and I are sitting next to each other, holding hands. That's not part of the bargain, but it's good that our undercover roles allow this level of closeness. This morning, when I woke up with her in my arms, I was seriously tempted not to get up at all.

Jameson explains that she's dealing with a case of a young girl who gave birth three months ago. She already is a mother, hardly earning enough to make ends meet for her and her three-year-old boy. "I think we have convinced her that the second child would be better off with a foster family, especially one that's as wealthy as you."

I must have stared at her for a moment, feeling the color drain from my face. What are they, what are we doing here? This woman is talking like she's wrapping up a deal for the sale of a used car, not a living child! Jess' fingers tighten around mine.

"I don't know," she says. "What if the mother changes her mind?"

Jameson exchanges a look with Martin Star. "She won't. You don't need to know details, but it would take just a few phone calls, some arrangements, and she'd lose both children. She won't take her chances."

I look at Jess, who seems shocked, but underneath, she's trembling with anger.

Taking a deep breath, I remind myself of our cover. Go along with the bastards' lines. "It would be a relief for her, right? To know the kid is in good hands, taken care of." I'm feeling sick.

Star speaks up now. "You're aware that this is unusual, that's why my partner asked me to be here. She spoke very highly of you; I've checked your records, and I can only concur with her now that I've met you in person. I'm sure you agree that children do not always belong with their biological parents. They deserve to have a future in the first place."

"You can promise me we'll get the baby?" Jess' eyes are shiny.

Tori Fielding smiles winningly. "You have everything ready at home, don't you? So let's get the paperwork started."

Just like that.

A moment later, we sit in the car together, still a little stunned, but comforted by the thought that the case is finally going somewhere. While we're at the main building, Jim and Megan will take a look at the files Fielding and Star keep in this nondescript building, and hopefully come up with something that'll help reunite Caitlin and her girl.

But before that, we're going to go to the PD to get the money. As it seems, Caitlin was right all along.

Those two big-shot 'we'll-do-everything-by-the-book' lawyers are going to sell us a child.

There are hardly words to express how we feel about this, but in any case, we're in it together. After kissing softly, we finally leave the parking lot to head to the station.

~~~~~~~

"Thanks, but I don't need the flashlight." We're going through the files, searching for the Mitchell record.

Megan rolls her eyes at me. "Well, I do," she says, pulling out another folder from the large cabinet, opening it. "So. You and Sandy talked everything through?" she inquires.

I shrug, resisting the urge to tell her it's none of her business. Time to stop kidding myself - it's actually good to have someone who knows and does not necessarily judge, even if these are not the best circumstances to have this conversation. "Caitlin broke in on us. There wasn't much opportunity from that moment."

She continues to skip through the pages, as she continues, "But he did tell you about his dissertation defense, didn't he? It's good that after all this time--"

"What?" I interrupt her sharply.

Connor's eyes grow wide. "I'm sorry. I thought that you... anyway. Look!" She pushes the file over to me. "Here it is. Mitchell. Caitlin's name, the real blood tests, everything."

It's still a blow that Blair has kept something that important from me, but what's worse, is that when I look at the photo of Caitlin, that howl sounds again, and this time, I don't need any interpretation help.

"We have to hurry," I tell Connor. "Something's wrong."

~~~~~~~

There are two security guards in the office with Jameson and Fielding, in the background, silent. Jess and I share a worried look. Neither of us has seen them before around here, and why would they need them here now?

No need to panic though. Simon has sent Jim and Megan after us, and I know I only have to whisper to make Jim hear me, if something goes bad. As soon as the deal has gone down, they'll come in, bad guys will be arrested, end of story.

The captain has also told us that Jim and Megan have found a file on Caitlin's baby girl. As painful as it will be for the Mitchell family, the child belongs with her mother.

"Hey, what you're doing?" Jess protests as one of the security guards takes her purse and empties its contents onto Fielding's large oak desk.

"Right, man, that's not part of the deal," I chime in, starting when he finds the small handgun. No police issue, but still.

The man grins smugly. "What do you need that for?"

I shake my head at Fielding and Jameson. "I don't understand. You assured us that we'd walk out of here with a child tonight. What's with the set-up? You're afraid you're not going to get the money? Look into the briefcase. It's all there, $ 250,000."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg," she shrugs, "but we have to take precautions. Mrs. Sandburg, I'd be interested in the answer, too. Just to make sure there'll be no bad surprises. We don't want any trouble, and I'm sure you don't, either - so we ask again; what do you need a gun for?"

Jess glares at her for a long moment. "I was raped once," she says, her voice completely devoid of emotion, and I flinch at the unexpected words. "I'm protecting myself. It has nothing to do with our wish for a child."

Tori Fielding studies her in return, then nods. "Alright. Let's all sign the contract, and then you can go home."

I hardly hear her, my thoughts still with what Jess has said. An obfuscation to explain the gun in her purse? Something that has happened for real? Oh God. It takes every bit of willpower I have to push it aside for this moment - there's no other way.

We sit down to sign whatever she wants us to, and Maggie Jameson gets up to leave for - I still can't believe it - the child. Caitlin's claims were all right. And then - I can only think 'speak of the devil' as she stumbles inside, Martin Star behind her. He's pressing a gun to her side.

"I'm so sorry," Caitlin cries. "I had no choice. They said I'd never see my baby if I didn't tell them the truth about you. I didn't want to--"

"There must be some mistake," Jess says, astonishingly calm. "I don't know that girl, but please take away the gun. Just stick to the contract we've just made."

Maggie enters the room with a baby in her arms, and then all hell breaks loose.

~~~~~~~

Simon has called us on the way and sent us straight to the office of Fielding & Star where Jess and Blair are going to meet them.

The gunfire sounds like an explosion in my ears, but I've got it under control, as we move into the building. Fielding & Star is on the second floor, but at this late hour, the elevators are turned off.

"Can you hear if anybody's been injured?" Megan asks tersely, and I shake my head.

"Can't turn 'em up too high now," I say. We hurry up the stairs, then down a hallway to the room from where the sounds came. The door is locked; Connor kicks it open. As we burst into the room, my gaze first falls on Caitlin who lies on the floor in a pool of blood. Oh damn it. Megan kneels down beside her and checks for a pulse. Her hand comes away red. "Still alive. I'll call an ambulance."

There are two other heartbeats in this room. Following the sounds to find their owners behind the desk, I lower my weapon when I see them: The woman is clearly in shock; from the description Blair and Jess have given, I recognize Maggie Jameson. She's clutching a baby to her chest, no older than three months.

"Where are the others?"

She turns wide eyes on me. "I don't know. I just... I didn't know they would -- I hid here with the child when they started shooting..."

"It's okay, Ma'am. The paramedics will be here soon." I don't tell her that she'll have to answer to the cops, too, but that's not important at the moment anyway.

Megan has found a towel she is pressing against the wound in Caitlin's side to staunch the flow of blood. She looks up at me, her gaze serious. "Be careful," she says, and I nod as I turn to leave.

~~~~~~~

"Not again," she's whispering. And once more: "Not again."

I pull Jess close to me, disregarding the fact that her blood is staining my shirt. It's just a graze, not life-threatening - in any case, *if* we are going to make it out of here. But that's not on my mind at the moment. There was a split-second, when Caitlin tried a distraction, and Jess reached for the gun, but we were outnumbered by Fielding, Star, and their goons.

When the bullets started to fly, we ducked as best we could, but that graze... it came from a bullet that would have hit me instead. She was lucky. I am, too - Jess has just risked her life for me.

Obviously, the lawyers decided not to cause any more commotion, and resume their plans at a quieter place - like killing the witnesses. They had Caitlin and Maggie locked up in the office, and made Jess and me come with them.

"If we get into a car with them, we're as good as dead, and that won't happen," I whisper back to Jess. "Megan and Jim are most likely here already."

When we all reach the first landing, the lights go out in the building. In the distance, sirens can be heard.

~~~~~~

There's the sound of flesh hitting flesh solidly, and someone slumps to the ground. As my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, I realize one of the security guards is trying to make an escape. I tackle him, and both of us tumble down the last few steps, until I manage to grab the banister and pull myself back up.

The light comes back on. "Nice move, Chief," Jim says, a relieved smile on his face.

Jess looks pale, but she has trained a weapon on Star who's holding up his hands with a sour expression, and I realize that Jim must have handed it to her in the darkness. Whatever. It seems we have succeeded once again, except-- "What about Fielding?" I ask, breathlessly.

"No worries." We all turn at the sound of Megan's triumphant voice. Tori Fielding has her hands cuffed behind her back, her gaze matching Star's.

It's really over.

~~~~~~

I watch Jess as she's watching one of the paramedics gently take the baby from Maggie Jameson's arms. There's longing in her eyes, and she shakes herself as if to shake off a spell. Smiling sadly, she says, "Stupid, isn't it? I was hoping I could at least hold him for a moment - but I guess it's better this way."

"For now, be proud, mate," Megan tells her. "You both did great, even though this was so hard for both of you." She sits down beside her friend, and Blair gets up to join me outside.

We stand beside each other in silence for a moment. No discomfort in that though.

Blair leans against the brick wall, giving me a wry grin. "Some things never change, huh? You were just in time for the last-minute rescue. Thank you."

"You're welcome, partner." I feel myself relax, too. It was tight, but I took the vision for what it meant, and the timing was right. Our connection is still strong. "You didn't do so bad yourself."

This time, his expression becomes a little rueful. "Got the bruises to prove it, I think. Care to tell me why those bozos always *run*?"

"Why didn't you tell me you already had your doctorate?" I blurt out. It's just something I don't understand. I know the breach of trust has been on my side, no excuses, but still - it was the reason we met in the first place, and it was an important moment, one I would have liked to share with him.

I study him, the slight resignation in his gaze that's so hard to reconcile with the memory of this kid who was annoying the hell out of me with his boundless enthusiasm - because it was a feeling I thought I'd lost long ago, and envied him for it.

"There was never a good moment," Blair says with a shrug. "And it didn't have the same meaning it would have had years ago - I really didn't tell anyone but Simon, and asked him to keep quiet about it, but Megan found out - accidentally."

We both chuckle at that. "Connor does that quite often, doesn't she?"

"Right. She always said I needed to tell you - I'm sorry, Jim. There were just too many other things on my mind."

"It's okay. So they offered you a position at the university?"

"You're kidding me? Edwards was too glad to finally see me leave. The Chief, however, offered me full-time. I'd still be working with you and the MCU mainly, but with other departments, too."

"That's... great! I mean..." I'm scrabbling for words. It seems like the perfect solution we've been after for so long. And it's there, just so. "Do you want to do it?"

"Yes, I do. What about you? You're still okay with the Sentinel deal? 'Til death do us part?"

"Sounds like an idea." I feel myself grin.

"That's good, because... I think except for Naomi, my family has consisted of only cops for quite a while."

"True." We hug, and then I just need to say it once more, "I'm sorry," and it's clear that it's specifically for a temporary decision that couldn't have been more wrong. Blair doesn't say anything, but I can tell from his relaxed posture and the calm heartbeat that those words have an echo. The wall has crumbled. Thank God.

I'm reluctant to let go, and Blair seems to feel the same.

"It's alright, just don't forget that *I* am taking him home," Jess says with more than a trace of amusement in her voice.

~~~~~~~

Too wired to sleep, Jess has retreated to the couch, and I've made us some tea. When I return from the kitchen, I have to smile as I see what she's reading - "A Rage To Live", by Mary S. Lovell, the book that brought us together in the first place. Can you imagine I almost missed it because of the whole Alex drama? But when I read it, much of the old enthusiasm came back to me, reminding me why I'd always admired Burton endlessly, his talent to acquire new languages, and his dedication to make the impossible true, like the trip to Mecca, among other things.

And then, there was Mrs. Isabel Burton. I'd been holding a grudge for quite a while, and earlier biographies just seemed to confirm I'd been right - but Lovell explains very dedicatedly why Isabel had destroyed such a big part of Burton's works, and definitely not out of scorn. In fact, the two of them lived a great love story...

...It was Jess who gave me a whole new perspective when she reminded me of how tough that woman actually had to have been to rebel against the rules that were obligatory for women in the Victorian age.

I take a seat beside her, lay my hand over the one that holds the book. Jess looks up, smiling. "Well, they had a very special relationship, but I still think there was something between him and Speke, like the other books say."

"Like with me and Jim?" I tease, knowing exactly that it's something different what the other biographers have suggested.

"Well, I know the truth," she says dryly, "but some folks at the station don't even discuss it anymore. It's common knowledge to them. Whatever." She closes the book. "It's fine with me, as long as you stay with me tonight..."

Much later, when we lie in bed together, the subject swings back to the evening and its events. When we got home, Caitlin was still in critical condition at the hospital.

I stroke my fingers along the bandage around Jess' arm, voice suddenly tight with emotion, as I finally ask, "Why did you do that?"

Jess looks at me with a sleepy smile. "Well, technically you're still a civilian. It's my job." Then she leans towards me, until our lips meet. "And because I love you," she whispers.

We kiss lazily for long minutes, until the thought intrudes like a bolt of lightning, bright and sharp. How the hell could I forget about that? I pull back a little, turn on the small lamp on the nightstand.

How to approach something like this? I feel uncertain all of a sudden. What if--

"Jess."

"What is it?"

"What you said about carrying a weapon..."

I see in her face that it dawns on her what I really mean to ask. For a torturous moment, Jess is silent. "In Asunción...", she begins, pauses again. Please, no.

"Not me. The other woman they'd kidnapped. I heard her scream, and -- it was close enough to make Fielding believe anyway. Back then, there was this young man, barely of legal age, and he was so shocked about all that had happened that day, he got me out."

"Thank God he did."

The nightmare is really in the past now. But we're still here, so that's got to mean something.

~~~~~~~

I've come back from a long briefing with Vice, sitting at Jim's desk, swapping stories with him about his former colleagues. Megan and Jess are in Simon's office, waiting to get their new assignment, and I think just how good it is to be here.

I have realized that everybody stopped questioning my presence here the moment I did. It's all about choices, in the end.

Megan and Jess come out of the office, giggling and whispering to each other.

"Hey, Jim," I say. "You see that brunette over there? Can you hear what she's saying about me?"

We start laughing. Sometimes, fate really does strange twists, but we sure have learned to deal with them, haven't we?

 

Epilogue

It's another Friday evening. We're supposed to meet Blair and Jess and the others for dinner tonight. Coincidence has it that Connor and I stayed a little longer, catching up on paperwork while the happily married couple sneaked out on us.

Megan's asking me to give her a ride. She's waiting at my desk while I put the last folder in the outbox. "So all's well now." It's a statement, not a question.

"Right. Not that I mind, but I thought you'd go with Rafe?"

"Well, I'm not. Some Sentinel you are - I thought everyone knew he's screwing the donut girl."

"Ouch. Sorry," I say, not too sure what to make of it, but she grins at me.

"No reason. We just weren't the stuff happy-endings are made of. I haven't given up hope yet, though - you shouldn't, either. Shall we go now? I thought Simon said he's going to join us later."

"Thank you, Connor."

She just smiles, and it's clear that she knows what I mean. With the folks I call my friends, there's really no reason to feel sorry for myself, right?

We have almost reached the double doors of the bullpen, when Simon calls after me, "Jim?"

Oh, damn it. "That's meant for me. So make your escape while it's still possible."

~~~~~~~

"You won't like this, Jim," Simon says seriously.

"I'm sure I won't. I've got plans for this evening," I joke, but I'm on alert. He wouldn't have called me back if it wasn't important. I can really do without any nasty surprises for a while.

"There's been a bank robbery; a cop has been shot. Not in the line of duty though; he was one of the customers. Look at this."

He pushes the print from the observation tape towards me, and I pick it up. It's black and white, grainy, but even without Sentinel senses, I can recognize the attractive dark-haired woman. And it's impossible.

"That's... Lila," I stutter.

"Well, we both know it can't be her, but in any case, it's seems like the killing was premeditated, and the robbery was just a cover-up. It was a hit."

"Damn." It's all I can say. Lila - I don't want to think about her. Not the moment when I held her dead body in my arms, knowing that she'd run into the killer's line of fire to save me. "I guess I should call the others then and tell them I won't be going?"

"It's your choice, Jim, but I think this should be your case."

He's right. I'm the one who's got to exorcise some ghosts here...

A knock on the door makes me start, and I stare, as Blair enters the office. I haven't even heard him, but then again, my thoughts were definitely somewhere else. And I'd expected him to be elsewhere. Has he gone psychic now or what?

Seemingly reading my thoughts - no surprise here - he says, "No premonition, even if that was way cool... Megan told me you stayed, and I just thought you might need me."

Simon hides his reaction behind his coffee cup, but I guess, one part amused, one part touched.

"You're right," I say, "I need you." Never before so sure of it, and willing to admit it.

The End

 

"And I could see it clearly

Once when you were here with me

Now somehow all that's left are

Pieces of a dream..."

(Anastacia, Pieces Of A Dream, 2005)

 

PS: I kind of borrowed Jess from another cop show, namely 'Missing'. Just the looks and the first name, not the character; I was just looking for a certain type, and she fit the profile J .

"Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated" - that belongs to Mark Twain, of course.

The imaginary remote is used in the therapy of trauma victims, in order to help them controlling the intrusive sensory input, for example during a flashback.