Cascadian Icons

By Demeter

Betaed by Annie and Xasphie

EMAIL: Demeter

 

Life was good for Detective Brian Rafe. He'd just been assigned to a high profile case, the murder of an infamous scandal journalist, and for this, Rafe was temporarily partnered with Inspector Megan Connor. His usual partner, Henri Brown, who had been griping about how he never worked up the nerve to ask Connor out, was at a seminar in Tacoma at the moment. With Ellison and Sandburg being on a well-deserved vacation after the Brad Ventriss case, he and Megan had been the logical choice to tackle the situation.

The next best thing, he'd thought at first, but he was also determined to make this chance count, for this could be 'it', in terms of both his career and his private life.

It also wasn't about getting a date, Brian had never had any problems with that; it was for a different reason that he'd been hesitating this time. He'd had girlfriends who were impressed by his good looks, or by his job, or had even resented the danger of it. Megan was a terrific cop herself, and she wasn't easily impressed. She had an air of professionalism about her; apart from that, she was also funny and attractive and... she could be the one.

It was a good thing that they were only partners for this case, which left them both free to decide afterwards.

So – about the case.

Kevin Marks had been found dead by his girlfriend who had been supposed to meet him that night, using the key she had to let herself in to his apartment; that's when she had found him in the bedroom. They had already checked; she had an alibi for the time of his death. Liz Compton had been shopping, visiting several of her favorite stores, and at least four witnesses had confirmed that, not to mention security cameras.

The apartment hadn't revealed anything to them so far; either the man whose neck had been snapped hadn't been killed there, or the murderer had wiped the place clean. Very clean. No prints, no dust, not even any garbage. Rafe and Connor had both been voting for the second scenario, as nothing about the body indicated that it had been moved. The rooms, even his office, seemed suspiciously in order. Mark's girlfriend had commented on that, saying it used to be much messier. Plus, Marks also seemed to have been familiar with his killer, for there was no sign of forced entry.

The real clincher, however, was the story he had been in the middle of making; Liz had told them what little she knew about it.

"He was always saying to me that he was going to kick quite a few icons from their pedestals," she remembered.

"What kind of 'icons'?" Megan asked, as usual, straight to the point. "Politicians, rock stars, what?"

Liz had shrugged helplessly, fresh tears spilling over her cheeks. "I don't know! I'd have told you if I knew, I want the person who did it caught!"

"So do we," he'd assured her. "Do you perhaps know any of the people he interviewed recently?"

When Compton drew a blank, they had been kind of stuck after that, and decided to go back to the house once more. Kevin Marks' computer equipment had been dismantled and studied in the lab, and their hard-working co-workers had come up with nothing. An interview with councilwoman Rebecca Hayworth. Some writing about Angie Ferris. The mayor's brother playing basketball at a benefit with the Cascade Jags. And, interestingly, the sketchy beginnings of a report on Ellison, being awarded Detective of the Year.

All his instincts told him they were looking for something that was hidden in plain sight.

Icons.

The only problem was that the articles they found, secured with a password ridiculously easy to decipher, weren't Marks' usual indiscreet revelations that showed no respect anyway. In fact, they were mostly praise. A politician, the relative of one, the Rock star and a fellow cop.

Something was definitely missing here, literally.

For Marks, those were too-good-too-be-true portrayals, nothing anybody would kill for. It couldn't be what the girlfriend had been talking about, so either the killer had found the real story... or it was still here somewhere.

Back in the library, Megan meticulously examined the giant shelves once more. Marks hadn't hidden the 'real' icons story in his mattress or anywhere in his bedroom. They had even tested the walls for any hollowed sections, just in case the killer hadn't found whatever it was he was looking for.

Brian's gaze fell on the large fireplace once more.

And then he knew exactly where to look.

"Megan!" he yelled.

***

It was going to be a long night, Inspector Megan Connor thought with a sigh. At least the company was nice; and with the Marks case finally getting somewhere, and Captain Banks offering coffee from his office indeed, the real thing, it didn't seem too bad to be hunched over the computer all night. Not to mention, the sooner they got this done, the sooner she could test the hypothesis.

It wasn't hard to see that Rafe was interested in her, even though he couldn't seem to bring himself to make a move. She'd give him until the end of the case and then make her own. Megan, too, had been watching for a while, and she had noticed that he always seemed to be a little shy around her, something she found both cute and irritating. Well, time would tell. For now, she was occupied with a computer program she had promised she would crack before either Serena Chang or Sam could.

It was a good thing that Sandy had taught her some tricks about it; in return, she had taken him to the firing range. He had hated it, but felt it was necessary eventually, to be the partner Jim could trust. Though he hadn't actually phrased it that way, his reasoning had given her an idea of the conversations that had been taking place between them, and it sure hadn't been pretty.

Pushing the distracting memories aside, she concentrated on the screen before her. And realized something was happening. She was finally getting access to the files on the disc Brian had discovered hidden behind a loose brick in the fireplace.

As the first file came into view, she almost jumped from the chair in triumph. Rebecca Hayworth. Then Angie Ferris and then... Megan's enthusiasm was dimmed immediately. That meant there was a file on Jim, too. Damn it. Hadn't they been through enough by now?

From that moment on, it got only worse.

There was an outline of the story, no, a book that Marks intended to write on 'Cascadian Icons', as well as pictures. The real Kevin Marks style this time.

Groaning, she leaned forward, putting her head into her hands.

***

Simon Banks had been working late, too, enjoying the relative quietude in the bullpen around his office. //Of course it's quiet.// He grinned to himself. //Ellison and Sandburg aren't around.// All humor aside, they had really deserved this vacation, and as there had been no reports of any catastrophic incidents so far, they seemed to be, against all odds, just fine.

The Marks case was in good hands with Rafe and Connor; they were making progress, and in any case they needed the appreciation. Some time ago, Jim had accused Simon of using him as a 'personal pit bull', but there was another side to it. With the closure rate of his best team and the cases they got, the other detectives of Major Crimes had to be feeling like extras in a Superman movie, which was as wrong as it was unproductive.

Time to remember they were all highly skilled in what they did. As a unit – almost invincible.

Yeah, he would have liked those moments to occur more often, having the time to stop and think about this. It was at times like these, Simon really loved his job.

There was a knock on his door, preceding the entrance of Inspector Connor, Detective Rafe right behind her. Both of them looked kind of unhappy, and before either of them spoke, he just knew that special moment was way over.

"Captain? We thought you should see this right away," Megan Connor said.

***

On his first workday after a long-needed time-out, Jim Ellison's world was as perfect as it would ever be. Two weeks away from Cascade, the rain, the daily treadmill and, not to forget, the place of his failures, he felt ready to take on whichever criminal presented a threat to the Sentinel's tribe.

A cabin in the wilderness with no radio or TV, not even a phone save their cells for emergencies. It had been necessary; the Ventriss case had showed it all too clearly that they just couldn't do business as usual after the disaster with Alex Barnes, when Blair had died. It still made him shudder to think that this was what had actually happened. He wasn't comfortable with the mystical side of it yet, too close was the immediate association with the horror... but he had tried. In any case, it had helped him turn around the hands of fate, and that knowledge had been a strong motivation.

There had been talking. There had been some yelling... and in the end, understanding. A process that wouldn't be easily repeated in everyday life, but still. They were closer now than ever before.

Alex wouldn't be such a myth anymore.

What more could they ask for?

Even when Simon called him into his office before he'd even sat down at his desk, Jim didn't suspect anything.

"Hey, Simon," he greeted. "What's been going on in the most dangerous city of the U.S.?"

"Have a seat, Jim, please."

He did as he was told, the smile vanishing from his face. This couldn't be good news. The Captain's serious expression was a dead giveaway; even if Jim hadn't been able to hear his increasing heartbeat.

"Where's Sandburg?"

"Morning class. Took me quite a while to wake him today." He had to smile at the memory of his friend's miserable expression that had been replaced by a brilliant smile when Jim, in a mood, had brought a steaming mug of coffee into his room. //"Jim, man, you're a saint."//

//"Yep. St. Sentinel, don't you forget it. And now get your ass out of bed, or you'll have to take the bus."//

Blair had groaned remembering that the Volvo was still - and where else would it be? - in the garage.

Simon didn't seem to find Jim's words funny in any way, he just nodded and said, "That's good. I wanted to talk to you first."

"About?" Jim asked curtly, his unease growing.

"This." Simon took some photos out of a manila envelope and spread them out before Jim. He looked closely at each of them, confused. They all showed him and Blair, some at a restaurant, some at the university, or in the vicinity of the station or their home. Except for the last one. Jim began to understand, or at least he thought he did. Anger welled up inside of him, not at his boss, but whoever it had been to capture that very private moment between the two of them.

Jim picked up that particular shot, wondering how he could have not noticed a stranger invading their home and privacy. At the same moment, he knew that there had to be more implications than just Simon's curiosity, otherwise they could have handled this over some beers after work.

"Cute, isn't it," he said dryly, laying it back on the table. Every other picture had been taken somewhere in public places, scenes that had probably witnessed by many, dismissed without a second thought – or maybe not, but this one showed Blair sleeping beside him, upstairs in the loft.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Banks asked, making no attempt at hiding his disappointment.

Shaking his head, Jim laughed, incredulously.

"Okay, I can imagine why, I am also your boss, the one who'd have to separate you the moment you told me, but..."

"Whoa, Simon, come on, you don't think... you do. I cannot believe this. Whatever this is all about, you got it all wrong. There is nothing to tell."

The captain leaned back in his chair, looking a little relieved. He didn't seemed to be one hundred percent convinced though. "Let's forget about work for a moment. I'm your friend as well, right? Tell me again."

With the course the conversation was taking, Jim got a little irritated with his friend. Simon should have known better; after all, they hadn't initiated him into the Sentinel secret that early for nothing. What was unnerving Jim now, was the implicit accusation that he and Blair had lied or even kept the truth from him in an important matter. A matter that didn't, in fact, exist. Anyway...

All but jumping from his chair, Jim began to pace in the office. "I guess you're going to explain eventually why you're so taken with this, or where you got this stuff from in the first place. You want the story behind this picture?" Jim stopped and turned towards Banks. "You do remember what happened during the Golden case. Figures," he said sarcastically, as Simon scowled at him. "It's not likely I'll ever forget that either." He stood with his back to the window, forcing himself to keep his temper restrained. "When that was taken, and I have no idea how that was even possible, Sandburg was just back from the hospital. He had terrible night terrors, night after night. He couldn't sleep, I couldn't sleep, it was like this shit would never be over. We didn't know what to do." He clenched his jaws as he finished. "So, you see, very exciting. The stuff love stories are made of."

"Oh, God, Jim, I had no idea." Banks was genuine in his words.

"Right." Jim narrowed his eyes at his superior, angry that he had ever been doubted . "Who else has seen this?"

"Rafe and Connor." Simon groaned, unable to make eye contact. "I think they will want to talk to you and Blair. For now, sit. C'mon Jim, sit, and let me give you the big picture."

***

She felt safe. The plan was moving along nicely, nobody would ever suspect her. Her strongest suit had always been adapting under the most difficult circumstances; that's what she was doing now. Hiding in plain sight.

Killing Marks had been ridiculously easy. He'd been so sure of himself, so damn condescending, the way he'd always treated her. The way he'd probably treated everybody else, but he was the unfortunate one, the one of too many persons who treated her like she deserved no respect.

With that project of his, making public the secret desires of Cascade's most popular, he had intended to achieve only one thing – to become an icon himself. He'd never have that now, and she loved that she'd been able to see to that.

***

Most of the material on the disc was much more compromising than the camouflage features, like Rebecca Hayworth in an astonishing black leather outfit and a whip, swinging it at some guy chained to a cross. The married brother of Cascade's mayor in a passionate embrace with a young boy who seemed barely legal. Angie Ferris, the respected singer and songwriter, lounging luxuriously on black satin, naked. That one was, at least, quite tasteful, but it didn't really fit with the image she was projecting these days. And then the misinterpreted story; Marks obviously hadn't known, and his audience wouldn't have cared.

"So, did it work?" Simon asked, out of the blue.

"Well, it did. Probably a Sentinel thing," Jim replied with a straight face, knowing this was the fastest way to direct Simon away from the subject, and he'd been right, the captain held up his hands in defense. "I'm not *that* curious, thanks. So, I hope it's going to be nothing more than a formality when I'm asking you where you were three days ago, approximately three p.m.?"

//I hope this day is not going to get any weirder.// "You know the answer. At the cabin with Sandburg. We were having a late lunch."

Simon sighed. "I guess some of the folks he intended to feature in his book had more reason to want him shut up, but I'd feel better if there were any witnesses. I believe you. I really do."

"I see. Angie did some stupid things with Ray Weston when she was a kid, Mayor Elmer's kid brother probably smoked some pot in his college days, but the bet would be on someone who's had Covert Ops experience?"

"This is serious. IA will be investigating."

Jim shrugged. "They did before. I've got nothing to hide, neither has Blair." He stared at the pictures solemnly for a moment. "They were right in one thing, Marks and the person that killed him. I don't want this to be public." He was well aware of the ironic contradiction to his earlier words. "It's ridiculous, really, I don't give a damn what anyone thinks, but this case is still one we're trying hard to forget."

Simon nodded. "I can imagine. And here he comes," he added, pointing at Blair who had entered the bullpen and momentarily stopped at Megan's desk, entertaining her with some story. He chose to ignore Jim's indulgent smile; of course he knew Jim would have identified his Guide's heartbeat before he even entered the building.

***

Some healing had definitely taken place, Simon noticed as Sandburg finally made his way to the captain's office, the bounce back in his step, and not bothering with knocking on the door before coming in. //Hell if I should ever tell him I thought of *that* as a good sign.// Then again, the news they had for him would probably not be helpful.

Sometimes, it sucked to be Captain.

However, it also had its moments.

He watched as Ellison got up, pulled out a chair for his partner, greeting him with the words, "How was your day, sweetheart?" and kissed him on the lips lightly.

Blair took a step backwards, his eyes wide with surprise and, indeed, shock. It took almost a minute, before he said, "Jim... are you okay?"

"Enough with the theatrics," Simon groaned, not sure if he should be relieved or annoyed. "Sit down. Both of you."

"No argument here. I think I need to," Blair said, casting another suspicious glance at Jim.

***

So, it wasn't some weird zone Jim had gotten into, just his way of saying, 'it isn't as bad as it looks, and we'll get through this, too'. If only he wasn't being a bit too optimistic here. After all this time, Blair still couldn't bring himself to consider that incident he hardly remembered – but he had seen the tape of what happened in the garage. He'd been overwhelmed by dread and shame, no matter how many times he'd been told it wasn't his fault. Rationally, he knew of course they were right, and it wasn't his fault, but that didn't change the fact he'd lost control so embarrassingly. Had almost killed Jim.

Damn it all. The last few days had been too perfect; it seemed like he, they, had it coming. //Now *breathe*.// Shit, he'd thought he was through with this panic shit.

"Sorry about the drama, Chief," Jim said, casually draping his arm around the back of his chair. "I just thought Simon had to know we're nowhere near any closet." The captain cringed a little at his words, and that made Blair smile. //Bad choice of words.//

"Uh-huh. This is all bizarre anyway. Weren't you dating Margaret at the time?"

"I was, but I don't think Marks would have cared."

"Wow. He wanted us in a book."

"Isn't that exactly what you do?"

"Come on, Jim, you know that isn't the same and..."

But Jim had already caught on the hurt tone in his voice, interrupting him. "I know. Sorry. Anyway, we've got to do something about this."

"Yeah." He looked up at Captain Banks who had silently followed their interaction. "They couldn't charge Jim with murder, based on speculation, right?"

"No. Rafe and Connor will need your statement anyway. Just get this over with, will you?"

A statement. He could do that. As he looked at Jim for a moment, an unspoken thought passed between them. //I can't believe we just came from a vacation.// At this rate, they'd be needing another one soon.

***

Megan Connor was bone-tired, her complexion even paler than usual, showing her exhaustion. It was a bit refreshing though that Brian didn't look any different. They'd been home long enough for a shower and about three or four hours of sleep before getting back to work, with interviews with Kevin Marks' 'icons' on the agenda. For the morning, they had chosen Hayworth and Elmer, Angie Ferris in the evening, and somewhere in between, they'd talk to Jim and Blair, hopefully after Simon had brought them up to date.

"What else do you want?" Marcie Elmer's eyes were red-rimmed as though she'd been crying.

//I wouldn't be happy either if I found out my husband only wants me to cover up his true inclination.// About someone, anyone being gay, Megan couldn't care less, but Elmer had obviously used his position, power and money in the first place to get his 'dates', not to mention deceived his wife for quite a while, as it seemed. That was something she couldn't respect much.

"We would like to talk to your husband once more," Rafe informed her, his voice kind. "We understand this is a difficult situation for you – but it has to be done. Look, we promised you we'd treat this information as discreetly as possible. That hasn't changed."

She looked defeated, her shoulders slumped slightly. "I'll tell him you're here."

***

"This is bad, man," Blair declared, perching on the edge of Jim's desk. "If he got in without you noticing it – that could mean he knew about your Sentinel abilities."

"We don't know about that. Maybe I just didn't notice him."

Blair snorted at that.

"You have a lot of faith in me."

"I do," he said, seriously. "Listen, I want you to know – I'm sorry. I never thought this was going to come up again. If I hadn't been such a wuss..."

"Wait a minute, I thought we were clear on this. What are you worried about? There's been talk ever since you moved in with me. This picture isn't going to change anything – any way. And it's nothing to be ashamed about..."

 

//Another night, no different to the ones before. Blair finally fell into an exhausted sleep, then the nightmares started soon after that. "No. Stay away from me," he mumbled, getting more agitated. Jim, who already knew what to expect, was already halfway down the stairs.

"No! No, stay back! They're coming through the floor."

"Oh my God! Help me!"

By the time he started screaming in utter terror, Jim was in his room, first lightly shaking his partner, then catching his flailing arms. "It was just a nightmare. A nightmare. You're safe." Repeating those phrases until he was fully awake. And very embarrassed.

Night after night. Jim had sent him in the shower and then stripped the clammy sheets off the bed. In the morning, they had both been tired, not having gotten any real rest at all. The nightmare was extending into their real lives, literally. Truth to be said, Blair had been more afraid of flashbacks, but at the moment, this was just as bad, and there seemed nothing he could do to stop it.

By the sixth night in a row, they had both been truly desperate, and Jim hadn't changed the sheets when Blair emerged from the shower.

"I told you, you don't have to do it all the time. I'm so sorry. You need your sleep, too."

True words, indeed. He also needed his Guide to be okay. And safe. "Come sleep upstairs with me," he'd said, seriously, but then he had to chuckle at Blair's expression.

"And don't get any ideas, Sandburg. You're right; I need to sleep. We both do. And that's exactly what I have in mind."

"Fine with me." Blair grinned, though it didn't take a Sentinel to tell he was a hair's breadth away from crying. "Just stay on your side, man."

Despite the warning, it had been him who'd been scooting closer, continually. So what, Jim had thought, draping one arm around him, because it was the most comfortable position, and while he idly wondered about the weirdness of this situation, the Sentinel felt comforted by the closeness of his sleeping Guide's heartbeat, assuring him they'd mastered just another crisis...//

 

"Jim! Snap out of it!"

The voice was quiet, but insistent. Jim shook himself a little, surprised that the memory had actually lead into a zone. He hadn't zoned in quite some time. Blair seemed to think the same, eager to discuss it, but that would have to wait, Jim thought, as he recognized the sounds of Megan's high heels. This was probably as unpleasant for their colleagues as it was for them.

"Not now," he said aloud. "They're coming."

***

"Hey guys."

If he was really honest, Rafe would have preferred for anyone, everyone but him being in charge of this case. Still, he was even more determined; now that their friends were involved, it was all the more important not to screw this up.

It was easy to read in their faces; they already knew. Brian sent a mental thanks to Simon, reminding himself he now had a job to do. "I guess I don't have to tell you it's nothing but procedure. Marks has stepped on many people's toes, and of course, we know better than..." He stopped mid-sentence, cursing himself silently. //Real smooth.// He forced himself to smile and said, "So let's just do this and maybe we can all go for a beer after work so you can tell us about your vacation, right? We've got Interview Rooms 7.2 and 7.4 set up. Blair? Would you come with me?"

He resisted from sending Megan a 'Help-Me' look. Weren't they taking it better than he'd thought?

"Sure, man," Blair said, giving him a hesitant smile. Jim patted his shoulder lightly, in a very brief moment, then he was all business. "Let's go, Connor."

How he wished for this day to be over. Rafe didn't really think that either of them had anything to cover up, but they were going to handle very private subjects here, and that wouldn't be easy. He'd been working with the two of them long enough to identify their individual strategies. While Ellison had the poker face down pat, revealing nothing unless he wanted to, Sandburg would use his verbal skills for evasion, and it was hard to tell which one was harder work.

He would admit to himself, though, that despite them being friends, Brian felt just a little bit intimidated by Ellison's tactics. Since Megan didn't share that feeling the least bit, he was glad to leave him to her.

***

PART 2

"That's it already. Thanks a lot." Megan pushed the 'Stop' button on the recorder, leaning back into her chair. She was regarding him thoughtfully.

"So, what else do you have?"

Megan shook her head, her expression regretful. "You're not on the case, and if I tell you anything, Sheila Irwin will have my hide. Please understand."

Jim stood up, pushing his chair back. Even though he knew she was telling the truth, it annoyed him. His hands were tied and he hated to know it, the other subject notwithstanding. "You know I could help you with the case," he ventured meaningfully.

She sighed. "Yes, I know, but trust us here. Believe me, this will be over soon. Honestly, nobody thinks you had anything to do with Marks' death. As for this photo..." She smiled a little. "You live together, work together, go on vacation. People have made up their minds already."

"Have you?" he asked, curious now. Simon had known about the Sentinel business much longer, and yet he'd jumped to conclusions too easily.

"You want to confess something, Detective?"

"Hell, no. Go find that killer, but if you need any help..."

"I know where to find you," she said seriously.

Jim knew that she'd keep the promise; Connor was very capable, but she wouldn't be too proud to come to him if she thought his Sentinel abilities could do any good here. Still, this very important case wasn't his, and he didn't like that one bit.

***

"July 23rd , three p. m? We were at the cabin. Having a late lunch. We'd been sleeping in that day." Blair hefted his gaze on the floor for a moment, knowing he was blushing. "Not in the same bed, I'd like to emphasize." He wondered how Jim could take all this so lightly. It was true, people had always been talking, but this time, it wasn't just about rumors. Technically, it was, but that photo...

Actually, when it had happened, he was too disheartened, craving a good night's sleep so much, and then very grateful that it had worked. No more ugly, burnt creatures that emerged through walls and floor in a golden flash, reaching out for him and everybody else in their way, brandishing, torturing. While the nightmares seemed to get worse, he, too, was afraid they would translate into full-fledged, waking flashbacks. That fear, combined with the images that tormented him in his sleep, had become all-consuming. He'd been afraid of losing his mind.

And then that night had changed everything.

They hadn't really discussed it, and as cool as he'd been about it all, Jim didn't want to explore any deeper avenues here. For once, Blair had gladly agreed with him.

"Okay. Did you know Marks wanted to write an article about Jim?"

"The Cop-of-the-Year award, yes. I, we had no idea he was planning to 'out' us, I mean – you know what I mean."

"I think so. Did you ever meet Marks?"

"No."

"But Jim did?"

"Yes. I think that was two months ago. Only the once as far as I know. I take it there were more interviews, with folks who had a lot more to lose, right? Did you consider that the murder could have nothing to do with the book at all? Who knows who Keith Marks pissed off before? For all we know, it could be some cover-up as well."

Rafe looked a little resigned. "We'll consider all this. Has Jim ever told you about the interview?" He directed the conversation back to the original question.

Blair wondered if it was really necessary to tell Jim had met Keith Elmer at Marks'.

***

"Look, I understand that you have to check everyone out and all, but my lawyers would have taken care of it. I must admit this wouldn't be the perfect moment to get those pictures out, but hell, I did take part once. If anything, it would probably increase the sales."

Angie Ferris was all dressed in black, a tight shirt and black mini skirt, high heels. And she made it very clear that she would have liked to stop the publication, and would have very likely succeeded using perfectly legal ways.

When Kevin Marks had been murdered, she had been giving a live press conference, announcing her new album, with the title 'Icon'. If that wasn't ironic.

"Thanks you very much, Ms. Ferris," Rafe finally ended the interview, pushing aside his frustration. This day had brought them next to nothing; only the small fact that it turned out Marcie Elmer had wanted a divorce even before she found out about her husband's secret.

"And say hello to Jim for me, will you?" Angie added with a wink.

"Sure." Brian forced a smile, then he and Megan left Angie's penthouse.

Rebecca Hayworth – well, she was furious. She told them that she had always rejected Marks' requests for interviews, so the book, she assumed, was how he wanted to pay her back. "I didn't kill him, but I can't say I mind that someone else did." Words spoken so often on TV, meaning to direct the attention away from the person that said them. Only this was real life, and they had nothing they could pin on her.

And maybe they had to look somewhere else entirely .

Rafe gazed at Megan who was driving silently. "What were you doing in Mexico?" he asked, only just realizing what he'd said, once the words were out.

***

The question didn't surprise her. What did surprise Megan Connor was that no one had approached her before. For the longest time, everybody seemed to have accepted that Jim and Blair shared some kind of secret, and that the Captain was in on it. They hadn't asked out of respect or whatever, but now, after their trip to Mexico, it was obvious that she, an outsider among the long-time co-workers at first, was now an initiate. With the shock of the recent events slowly wearing off, it was to be expected that they wanted an explanation.

She glanced at him quickly when she had to stop at a red light. "Going after Alex Barnes. You know that."

"Since when is Mexico in our jurisdiction?"

"Everything worked itself out. Isn't that enough?"

Brian sighed. "You know, sometimes it sucks, the way we're always supposed to take things for granted, not ask any questions. I thought we were friends."

"We are. It's not up to me to tell though."

Another red light. Why me, she thought, turning to him. "Listen..."

"So it is really true?" he asked. "I don't get it. What's the big deal?"

//Wrong lane, my friend.// "I'm sorry, you'll have to ask them yourself, but I can assure you, they're not a couple. Well, as far as I know," she said, chuckling. Thinking of the one thing that would distract them both from the subject. "Now, are you going to buy me dinner?"

***

In the past few days she'd been wondering if she could do it again... Would it feel the same, that overwhelming surge of power like nothing she'd ever felt before? Kevin Marks never saw it coming; he was dead instantly, the smug grin he'd given her when he thought she was just one stupid person trying to get to him, like others had before – just wiped away, to be replaced by the still expression of death.

When people looked at her, they hardly saw that she was strong enough to snap a man's neck. Well, folks, she thought, looks can be deceiving, right?

She was almost sure she could do it again.

She wanted to.

***

They were having coffee in Brian's apartment when the call came in, and Megan almost felt relieved. Too many secrets that weren't hers to tell; yet, she didn't have to tell an outright lie, but that could be necessary somewhere along the line. She would, of course, keep the promise and protect her friends as far as possible, but she also wanted this relationship with Brian to happen.

So, when Simon called at the ungodly hour to inform them that the man who'd been receiving the spanking from a leather-clad Rebecca Hayworth had been murdered, she felt guiltily relieved for this reprieve she'd been given.

***

Carl Thompson, thirty-two years old, a mechanic at a local garage, had been poisoned with arsenic. A half-eaten pastry still lay on the table in his living room where he'd lain dead in the living room. There was hardly any doubt that the murder had to be related to the Marks case, even though the killer seemed to be taunting them by throwing in some changes, like the poison opposed to the snapped neck. Yet, again, no signs of forced entry; Thompson, too, had let his killer inside.

He had lived alone; the neighbors, an elderly couple, had been wakened by loud noises coming from his apartment and subsequently called the police. The officers on the scene had found him dead.

Brian thanked their ME Dan Wolf after he had listened to the preliminary findings; then he turned to Megan. "Isn't that strange?" He frowned. "It doesn't make sense. First he goes after Marks to protect anybody that would have been 'outed' some way or another in that book. Then..."

"He goes after someone he feels is responsible in the first place," Megan continued. Absently, she peeled the latex gloves off her hands as they walked towards his vehicle. She had left her own car at Brian's. "Probably we got the motive wrong the first time. He kills Marks because he's pissed off by this book project, but he hates the 'perversion'," she gestured with her hands to indicate italics, "of those who were meant to be in it as well. Could be that he felt the urge to kill again. This time, the ones who brought it on."

"That means we'll have to warn the other ones."

Rafe didn't say it out loud that their friends were back in the middle of it.

***

It was like premonition, telling him that something bad was about to happen. All that Jim needed now was a trip to the blue-tinged reality of his spirit plane and it would be complete. Grimly, he thought that he'd tell Sandburg at first moment's notice; that much he'd learned from his fatal mistakes of the past.

His Guide was currently sitting beside him, helping out with the paperwork. Perfectly safe, right? It felt like sitting around, doing nothing, and it made his skin crawl. At some point, his uneasiness must have been almost palpable, because Blair looked up at him from the printout he was reading, worried. "You okay, man?" When Jim shrugged, he went on, "Look, they didn't mean anything, they had to interview us."

"Yeah, I know. I just... I'd feel better if they let us take a look at the evidence."

"Come on, you're just looking for a way to escape from this desk. They got it covered."

"I *know* that," Jim said again, irritated.

Any further argument was halted as his phone rang. It was a physician from Cascade General who just had the victim of a hit-and-run brought in. The 19-year-old boy was coherent enough to make a statement, but they had to keep him at the hospital. "We'll be there in twenty," Jim assured the doctor, then sent a smug grin in the direction of his friend. "Let's go, Chief."

"I told you..."

***

Jason Watts had been very lucky; the car had barely touched him, but in trying to jump out of the way, he had fallen and bumped his head. Other than the resulting concussion and a few scrapes, he was okay, considering. They needed to keep him in overnight for observation though, Dr. James who had called them, explained. He took another look at the partners, apparently remembering them from earlier visits, so he added dryly, "but I guess you know a thing or two about that."

"Mr. Sandburg! You're considering a career change?"

Blair was startled at that greeting, but Watts smiled easily and explained he was studying at Rainier. A psychology major, in fact. "So you probably don't know me, but believe me, you're quite famous. My buddy Ally's in one of your Anthro classes, and man, she loves it."

He could tell Jim was amused about the young man's words though he quickly directed the conversation back to the matter at hand. "Mr. Sandburg works as an consultant for the police department as well. So, what can you tell us about the accident?"

Jason Watts tried to straighten up in the bed, wincing. "That really sucked," he said emphatically. "I'm way over on the sidewalk, and this nutcase tries to hit me. There was no way she could have not seen me. There was no one in her way. Just went for collision course."

"She?" Blair asked. "How could you..."

"Because I saw her face! Long blond hair. The girl must have been on something, I sure as hell didn't know her."

"What about the car?" Jim queried.

"You bet. It was a green Peugeot, Washington license plate. There was an '88' in it, I didn't get more, though."

"That's good, gives us a lot to work with," Jim complimented him, and Jason beamed under the praise.

Blair recognized him then, mouthing a silent "oh shit" . That earned him a questioning look from Jim. "Can we talk outside for a moment?"

***

As they had expected, Hayworth had a waterproof alibi for the time of Thompson's death. Connor and Rafe ruled out that possibility while trying to reach Angie Ferris' photographer, Keith Elmer's young lover, and of course, Jim and Blair. However, so far they had been out of luck.

Megan was getting nervous.

When she'd called the station, Simon had told her that they were out on a case; and he promised to call them. Jerry Paulson, the photographer, was out of the country for an assignment in Europe. It seemed like they would have to pay the Elmer family another embarrassing visit.

***

She had parked the car after driving straight for half an hour, her hands clutching the steering wheel to stop the shaking. Slowly coming down from the adrenaline rush. She hadn't managed to hit him, the little brat, so he was most likely alive and already sputtering nonsense. It was better to leave the car behind - she'd never liked it anyway, a present made out of guilt by her husband, to shut her up again - and calmly accept her fate.

She'd made him think he'd succeeded.

//In your dreams, darling.//

***

 

"What's going on, Chief?"

"Jason Watts. I can't believe I saw it right away."

Jim meant to ask what the hell that meant, but that moment, he made the connection, too. Those photos from the disc in Marks' apartment. Watts was the boy Elmer had been caught making out with. "Guess that happens when you're involved too much in the case. That means..."

"It's Rafe and Megan's killer changing MO."

"Right." He was already on the phone to call in Jason Watts' description of the car that had hit him. "Let's go ask him a few more questions while we're here."

***

A little later that day, they joined forces to bring the pieces of the puzzle together.

Jason Watts had told them that Elmer was about to leave his wife because of him, and of course he'd never resorted to blackmail in any way, nor had he hooked up with Marks when the process didn't go as smoothly as he'd hoped.

'He just needed a little more time, you know? It's not an easy step.'

The whole time, his heart was beating much too hard for this to be the truth. Elmer had most likely never intended to give up his family.

With Thompson dead and the attack on Watts, the killer's next step seemed predictable. "Sandy, I think you should have some extra protection," Megan said, and Jim agreed with her.

"She's right, Chief. That person doesn't care if we're a couple for real or not – they think they have to punish everyone 'responsible' for the scandal stories."

Blair groaned at that. "Man, with finals time and everything, the last thing I need is a babysitter to follow me around. What if we're all wrong and those incidents aren't related at all?"

"Do you believe that?" Jim asked intently, and he could only shake his head.

"I believe that person is seriously disturbed, short of a personality disorder. What did I ever do to deserve this?"

***

It was quite of funny to see the police running around in circles. Less funny was the tedious task she had accepted for herself; her responsibility to rid the world of evil had all of sudden a greater dimension than she'd ever imagined. It had started with Marks and his intended 'victims', but it wouldn't stop at that.

The man who had made those vulgar pictures of Ferris; there wasn't much she could do about him now that he was out of the country. Rebecca Hayworth's downfall had already been punished.

At times, she felt severely confused; she had to admit that. At first, she'd only meant to stop Marks, to keep those terrible truths from coming out, but now she felt it was more important to get to the roots of those evils. People like Hayworth, Ferris, Ellison, they had been naive and easy. Not exactly a character strength, but the fault lay with the ones who had tempted them.

Jason Watts was in the hospital, still alive, but she had some ideas on how to change that.

One to go then.

***

Jason was quite pleased with himself. Just a minute ago, Keith had called him on his cell, shocked to find him in the hospital. All, in all, Jason was sure he would be able to use the situation to his advantage, after all, this was the perfect moment for Keith to make the decision that was long overdue. And he seemed inclined; had even offered to drive Jason home from the hospital tomorrow morning. That had to mean something...

The door opened, and he bit back a comment at being disturbed once again. Hell, he was going home in a few hours; he didn't need another nurse to bother him now.

"Good evening, Mr. Watts," said a friendly voice that sounded vaguely familiar.

Jason turned to face her, frowning as he tried to remember why the woman looked familiar.

"Sorry, but the doctor said you needed this." She had a syringe in her hand, still smiling at him, and suddenly, he was feeling afraid for no good reason. Now get a grip, he berated himself. You're in a hospital. What could happen to you?

When she pressed down the plunger, Jason remembered where he had seen her before, trying to pull away, but she had already injected him. Whatever had been in that syringe, it was working fast. Even as he lost consciousness, her name was the last thing on his mind.

And a deep grief for the life he'd never have.

***

Blair was off to the university with Officer Marten when the call came in. Megan took it, and as she listened to the news from Cascade General, she was aware that Jim probably listened to both her heartbeat and the caller's voice. Dr. James' team had just lost the frantic fight for Jason Watts' life after he'd been injected with an overdose of insulin.

***

"Detective?"

Rafe turned to Dr. James who waved him over. They were just searching the floor where Watts' room had been; there was no sign of the murderer. "Yes, Doctor?"

"Here's Mrs. Jackson. She might have seen something." He pointed at the young dark-haired woman who had her arm in a cast.

"There was this nurse," she said excitedly. "I saw her go into Mr. Watts room; and it wasn't one I'd seen before. I just wondered why she would give him any medication; he'd said he'd be released tomorrow... but then again, that wasn't what had me wondering... she looked familiar. I think I've seen her on TV before."

For a moment, Rafe wondered if she was just trying to get some attention, but his instincts told him that he should listen to her. Megan had joined them, listening attentively.

"I've been trying to put it together ever since I heard what happened to Mr. Watts, but... damn it," she said in frustration. "If only I could remember where it was I saw her! She is familiar somehow."

"Try to remember," Megan said urgently. "This is important."

Suddenly, the woman's eyes widened. "You'll think I'm crazy or something..."

***

That new information made a lot of sense to Jim combined with what he now knew about the owner of the green Peugeot. Which was registered to one Keith Elmer, Jason Watts' lover, a loose acquaintance of Hayworth, the man he'd met at Kevin Marks' studio some months ago.

Watts had claimed there had been a woman behind the wheel of the car that had hit him, and now he'd been murdered by someone in a nurse's uniform...

Someone was wrapping up the loose ends.

"You go to the house; I'll meet you there later. I've got to check on Blair first," Jim told Megan over the phone, then stepped on the gas pedal.

***

"Cascade Police. Open the door!"

There was no answer from inside the house. It seemed deserted, but they'd check, in any case. Rafe and Megan cautiously went around to the back, both starting at the open veranda door. A quick search revealed that in fact, no one was in the house.

Certainly time to call Officer Marten.

***

He'd never had a chance. Frank Marten had taken a step in between his protegee and the woman who'd just stepped into the room, but she'd already taken the gun out of her purse and shot him point-blank.

***

The whole scene had seemed surreal.

Marten had joined him in his office where Blair had intended to do some work; and he'd also scheduled a meeting with a student that afternoon. In fact, his babysitter wasn't so bad; Marten was about his own age, and very interested in his profession, asking questions about the tests Blair had given.

Well, he could work with that for a while until the murderer was caught.

There was a knock on the door, and Blair had assumed it would be Susan Drake, the student who wanted to talk to him about her grades. Marten had risen from his chair, cautiously moving towards the door.

A split second later, he fell to the ground, blood starting to pool beneath his unconscious body.

***

The young policemen was probably dead already. Marcie didn't care too much about that; he'd been in the way, it was as simple as that.

She smiled at the man who was going to be next, the last one at least until she could get her hands on that perverted photographer.

He was good-looking, she had to give him that, but that was where the evil began. Would have been Keith's type, too. Jason Watts had been a calculating jerk, but he could put on that same wide-eyed innocent look. That thought renewed her determination to go through with the task she had been chosen for.

There was finally a reason why she had to go through all this. They would understand now.

"Please," he said now. "Whatever it is you want to do, you don't need him for it. Let me call an ambulance, and then we can go somewhere else. Talk. I will listen to you, I promise."

Sandburg sounded astonishingly calm for someone being threatened with a loaded weapon, but she hadn't missed the slight quiver in his voice.

"Talk?" she repeated coldly. "Well, that's not the ultimate reason I'm here for. You want to explain yourself? Go on. And keep your hands on the table where I can see them."

***

Of course. What did she think he had in his desk drawers, a gun maybe?

Blair complied, casting an anxious look at the fallen officer. There was too damn much blood, and he hadn't moved since the woman had shot him. Elmer's wife, who would have thought it? Blair hadn't met her before, but he'd seen her on TV a time or two in connection with charities her husband was taking part in.

"Explaining myself?" Maybe he was in denial, not wanting to acknowledge that Jim would maybe not be here in time this time, but the superiority she displayed made him angry. Yes, she might have been hurt, but that couldn't justify what she'd done. "What for?"

"You know what for!" she hissed. "They were good people, before. Marks stirred up all that dirt, but it's people like you who are responsible in the first place."

She was beyond reasoning. Blair tried anyway; gaining a little time seemed like a good idea.

"Marks made a mistake though. Jim and I aren't lovers."

Her grip on the weapon tightened; and Blair flinched, halfway expecting her to shoot him.

"Liar," Marcie Elmer spat. "I saw the pictures and I know--"

"Not that it would be any of your business if we were," he interrupted her calmly.

"Shut up!" she shrieked, raising the gun.

***

 

PART 3

Maybe he could get there in time. Maybe nothing would happen, and they'd arrest Marcie Elmer before she could do any more damage. Jim wanted to believe that, but his instincts told him otherwise; she'd been damn fast in killing Jason Watts, and she had to know that the police were closing in on her, so she was probably aware that she had to act soon.

As Jim entered the anthropology building, he'd heard the gunshot.

He'd sped up his strides down the hall, almost running over a student that stared at him with a frightened, haunted gaze. It took Jim a moment to realize he'd seen her before; Susan, from one of Blair's classes.

"Oh my God, Detective," she gasped. "I saw it - she just shot him--"

"Who? Who's been shot?" He wanted to shake her.

"I don't know. He's in Mr. Sandburg's office, I don't know, but I think he's dead."

Jim realized that he wouldn't get any more viable information from her. As far as he could see, there were no other students in the hallway except for two women talking to each other, a few feet away. He wanted to get to Blair right now, but he also knew he had to take into consideration how Mrs. Elmer would react if she felt cornered.

"Susan," he said tersely, "I want you to think up a story and get those two out of here. Think you can do it?"

She nodded hesitantly.

"Okay." He drew his weapon, giving her what he hoped was an encouraging smile. "My colleagues will be here in a minute. It'll be alright."

Anything else was simply unacceptable.

***

"You'll be punished, like the others. It's my duty."

"But you don't have to do this, you--"

In the split-second before she pulled the trigger, he read in her wild eyes that those were the wrong words. The bullet only grazed his arm, but the abrupt flare of pain made him stagger backwards nonetheless.

Blair wondered distantly if her state of mind was comparable to the one he'd been in when under the influence of Golden. If it was, then it meant she'd probably go through with this. He would have, back then, if it hadn't been for Jim. Unfortunately, Marcie Elmer obviously didn't have a Blessed Protector to talk her out of this, and that didn't bode well for his chances.

"You wanted to save the reputation of your husband, and other respectable people. I understand that--"

"No, you can't!"

"Then tell me. Make me understand."

The combination of pain and the feeling of warm blood running down his arm made him feel dizzy and nauseated, but Blair also knew that keeping her talking was his only chance. The way Jim had talked him down from the car that day...

For some reason, his words made her smile. "That's what I'm here for," she said and fired a second shot, hitting him in the chest.

 

This time, the impact threw him backwards against the wall, leaving in its wake a burning pain that knocked the breath out of him, and the fear that this time it would be too late for a rescue.

***

Unable to raise Officer Marten on the phone, Megan and Rafe had been on the way to the university when the report came in: shots fired at the university. They copied the call, and requested an ambulance.

A worried look was shared between them as Megan switched on the siren.

"Maybe no one got hurt," she said, her hands clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip.

"Yeah, maybe," Rafe agreed, wondering if she was really that hopeful. He, too, wanted to believe that this case could be closed without anybody else losing their lives. And he hoped fervently that Jim had gotten there in time.

***

 

There was only one heartbeat in the room; the familiar one.

Which meant, Marcie Elmer had gotten away, but they'd take care of her later. When Jim opened the door to Blair's office, the dead body of Officer Marten was the first sight revealed. Another senseless death. Putting that crazy bitch behind bars was long overdue, but it wasn't on Jim's mind as he hurried to his friend's side.

Blair sat, slumped against the wall, blood staining the sleeve of his blue shirt. His eyes were clouded with pain, but he was conscious, lips twitching in the attempt of a smile. "H-Hey," he managed.

"Hey, Chief. I'm sorry about this. We should have anticipated--"

"Don't... not your fault. I'm glad you're here though."

Jim stopped, his sense of smell spiking on the stench of blood. There was something wrong. From the blood stain on Blair's right sleeve, he guessed it to be a bullet graze - but there was too much blood for it to only be that. "Let me see," Jim said, his heartbeat starting to race, as he carefully lifted away the arm Blair was holding tightly across his chest, and eliciting a soft cry of pain. "Sorry, sorry."

 

And then Jim understood, and his heart lurched in fear. This was the explanation for all the blood he'd smelled, not just from the graze, but from a second, far more serious wound. Blair's shirt was drenched back and front, the pulse of the gushing blood easily detectable.

"Oh God." The words were out before he could even think of holding them back, and as he reached for the T-shirt that hung over the back of a chair, Jim hoped that Blair hadn't heard it. Conveying hope, that's what he had to do now.

"It looks... bad, doesn't it?" Blair whispered, his breathing labored.

//Yeah, buddy, it does.//

 

Jim forced a smile. "No way, you'll be alright." He could do this, he could fake a reassuring smile. "I can hear the ambulance, they're outside the building. I'm afraid this shirt's a goner though."

The sound of the ripping fabric seemed obscenely loud. He bunched up both parts and held them against the bleeding wounds. Blair wanted to say something, but the only word Jim could identify was a whispered 'hurts'.

"Yeah, I know," Jim whispered back. Then he applied pressure, hoping he could at least slow down the bleeding.

He felt Blair's body stiffen with pain, and moved quickly so he could hold Blair against him. "Hold on," he said, too aware of the desperate tone in his voice, and feeling Blair's blood seep into his own clothes. "Come on, they're just outside the door."

" 'm sorry."

"No, damn it, stay with me!"

But as the paramedics rushed through the door, closely followed by Rafe and Connor, Jim's words were lost on Blair, as the younger man slipped into unconsciousness.

***

Marcie never got to see how Keith had really reacted when he heard of Watts' death. She had wanted to see that in his face, the realization that he was now free to lead a normal life. That they could start over again.

She didn't have any opportunity for that, but as she'd left Sandburg's office, Marcie had decided spontaneously to stay a little while longer, and see what would happen in this case. By now, the police might have connected her with the car that hit Watts, but she was dressed totally different now, wearing jeans and sneakers, also dark sunglasses and a baseball cap, her clothes fitting in with the style of most of the students here. It was relatively safe.

And somehow, exciting.

She stayed until the medics brought out Sandburg on a gurney, Ellison hovering close. There were other cops, too, the ones that had bothered her with their endless questions about very private subjects.

Marcie was too far away to see the expression on their faces, but she could easily guess, and smiled to herself. She'd done all there was to do.

Then she frowned.

Ellison had looked up, looking directly at her it seemed; she could almost feel the hatred in his gaze even if she couldn't actually see it. Get a grip! She berated herself. That was impossible! He said something to his colleagues as Marcie slowly backed away, turning to run when she realized that the other detectives were running after her.

***

Once again the hospital, being confined to the waiting room.

If it wasn't for Simon, Jim probably wouldn't have washed his hands or put on a jacket that covered the blood on his shirt, blood that wasn't his. He wavered between a comforting numbness and absolute terror; he couldn't say why, but this predicament had let loose a flood of images: His hands covered in the blood of Danny Choi. Remembering himself screaming at Blair to call an ambulance even though it was already too late. Incacha bleeding to death on the couch at the loft, and Jim was aware he could have easily fallen apart then if it wasn't for Blair.

Too much blood.

Blair, who had been in all those images, supportive, understanding.

Too many friends he'd respected and loved, lost.

He couldn't go through that any more.

***

She looked around cautiously. Marcie was almost sure that she'd gotten away from the dark-haired detective who'd been catching up to her. However, she knew this building quite well, having studied here once, before she met Keith and married him.

The inconspicuous green door beneath the stairs was a back entrance that hardly anyone knew about anymore.

With a deep breath, she opened it and stepped outside, into freedom--

-- or so she had thought.

"Cascade Police! Freeze!" Inspector Megan Connor snapped at her, weapon drawn.

***

"You can't arrest me! It was all justified, I had to kill them! They deserved it!"

Brian was glad when the uniforms finally drove her away, for the wish to slug the woman had grown continuously stronger. Megan obviously felt the same anger as she slammed the door of her own car shut with vigor, before she flipped her cell phone open.

He watched the emotions flicker over her beautiful face as she talked to the captain.

"Yes, I understand. We'll be there in ten minutes," she promised, then interrupted the connection.

"Sandy's in surgery now. They don't know anything else yet."

"He's going to be okay."

Megan smiled at him gratefully. Intuitively, Rafe pulled her close for a moment. God, he hoped he was right. The fact they'd finally cracked this case was much less important in comparison.

***

Jim had only marginally noticed *something* going on between Rafe and Connor, because his mind was on completely different things. It was a good thing that his colleagues had arrested Mrs. Elmer in the end; he wasn't so sure how it would have gone down if he'd taken off after her.

As much as he liked to be in charge, it hadn't really been much of a decision; he knew he had to be with his Guide at that moment; the fact that he wasn't the lead investigator in this case notwithstanding.

In his book, it wasn't any excuse that Marcie Elmer was obviously nuts.

And it wasn't just her; there were still too many out there, fanatics who might not be as severely disturbed as she was, but with attitudes that were just as fucked up as hers. If other people's lives didn't have that much scandal value in general, Kevin Marks couldn't have hoped to earn more than a few bucks with that damned book.

He had to be more cautious from now on; listen more carefully to all those snide remarks and recognize the looks they sometimes got; things he'd never told Blair about.

***

"Good evening, Detective."

It wasn't until somebody spoke to him that Jim realized he'd been close to nodding off. He straightened in his chair as the visitor slowly stepped closer, casting a regretful gaze at Blair who hadn't woken up yet. He would soon, however, if the doctor was to be believed. They had removed the bullet, and the surgery had gone well, so the prognosis was good, but it still had shocked him how pale Blair looked.

It had been close.

"I came straight from the police station," Keith Elmer said, his voice almost a whisper. "I think they were wondering why I didn't stay to give my wife any support – but I couldn't stand to be close to her. Knowing that she..." He swallowed hard. "She killed Jason."

Jim broke the eye contact, uninterested in anything the man had to say at the moment. Elmer sure had done his share to stir things up. Maybe he wasn't very fair about this; of course Elmer couldn't know how extremely his wife would react to his affairs, could he?

That line of thought was giving Jim a headache. Who was to blame here anyway? If only they'd left a more experienced officer with Blair... if he'd done the job himself...

"What do you want?" he asked, not caring if it didn't come across very politely.

"If Marks hadn't wanted to write that book..."

"Kevin Marks was a jerk, but that didn't give anybody the right to kill him."

"Yeah, probably. And I'm aware that I should have acted sooner, I knew that Marcie had problems, but..."

...but as the Mayor's brother, he probably needed an ideal family, if only for the press, Jim completed the sentence silently. It wasn't expedient for the public to know about Elmer's preference for young attractive men and so Jason Watts had to die.

//I don't want to hear this//, he realized. //No excuses.//

"I didn't expect that. Once, a couple of years ago, we had a fight, and she threatened me with a knife. I just didn't think--"

"Now it's obvious, isn't it," Jim interrupted him icily.

Elmer didn't seem to get it though, he appeared to be determined to make his point. "Detective... I just came here to tell you this. I know how you feel--"

"No, you don't understand how I feel!" Distantly, Jim realized that he perhaps shouldn't have yelled so loudly in a hospital, but he couldn't help it. He could relate to the grief that Keith Elmer had to be feeling now. What held him back from sympathizing with that was the burden of responsibility that the man had denied for far too long.

Elmer looked from Blair's still form to Jim, shrugging. "Maybe you're right. Don't worry, I won't bother you anymore. I hope though, that everything will turn out alright for both of you. In some way, it's good that we didn't have to stick to the original plan, isn't it?"

"Right," was the only thing Jim had to say to that, aware that his own heartbeat was speeding up. It was a good thing that Keith Elmer wasn't a Sentinel, too.

***

It was the first thing that came to him, on the way back to consciousness - the moment Mrs. Elmer pulled the trigger the moment she entered the room. "Marten?" was the first whispered word, and it was a good thing Jim was close by, because Blair was quite sure no one but the Sentinel had understood him.

The silence that greeted him was answer enough, and he screwed his eyes shut, trying in vain to hold back the tears. The young police officer had lost his life in the process of trying to save his; somehow Blair had hoped it wouldn't have been as bad as it had looked. If he was honest with himself, he'd known Marten had been killed instantly.

"Damn it."

"There was nothing you could have done." Jim was there, blessedly assuring him, but at the moment, that fact didn't make him feel any better. "A student of yours saw her. Elmer just went into the room and shot him; he didn't have a chance."

Rationally, Blair knew it as well. Still, another senseless death. There were so many things he wanted to say, but he must have been under the influence of some powerful medication, the surroundings slowly slipping away once more.

***

The next time, he'd managed to stay awake a little bit longer, with Jim doing his best to cheer him up a little.

"By the way, you were right about Rafe and Connor. They hit it off." He grimaced in feigned annoyance. "Pheromones all over the place, man. Am I ever glad you came up with those dials!"

That tidbit of gossip had made Blair smile a little. He'd always suspected that the detectives had a common interest in each other, ever since that crazy night shift at the precinct, and having seen them working together, it had been quite obvious. Jim was trying so hard, so the best he could do for now was play along.

"That's at least something. Hey, cool, I knew that before you knew... And of course, I can't keep lying around here and miss all the important details - So, tell me, when can I go home?"

Jim was shaking his head, taking the bait of the familiar argument.

"Sorry, I guess you're stuck here for a few days."

***

Back at home eventually, Blair had to realize that his recent experiences had left him with a deep uncertainty - regarding his place in Jim's life, and his own life in general.

What other reason could there have been for the images in his mind being as vivid as ever?

"No! Get away from me! No...!"

And fuck those Golden Fire people anyway. As he lay in his bed, once again shaking and gasping for air with the aftermath of the familiar nightmare which seemed to have become even more intense with his recent experiences, Blair remembered his impression of Marcie Elmer moments before she had tried to kill him --

It felt embarrassing that he couldn't let this go, and even in his more or less awake state, Blair still had visions of something flickering beneath the curtains that covered the French doors.

His heart began to pound as he imagined the room starting to burn, all around him, with no way out.

Lying on the floor in his office, thinking he'd bleed to death there all alone...

He really wished that Jim would come down the stairs anytime soon; just a little talk would make it better, dissolve the remnants of the stubbornly persisting nightmare flickers. But then Blair remembered he had turned on the white noise generator; Jim had gotten less than enough sleep over the past few days anyway, with spending so much time at the hospital.

With a sigh, Blair got out of bed to change into a clean shirt and boxers. After a short trip to the bathroom, he returned to his room, casting a longing look upstairs where his roommate slept soundly.

***

The firm knock on the door startled him out of his reading. Looking at his wristwatch, Rafe wondered who was paying him a visit at that time of night.

"Who's there?" he called cautiously.

"It's me."

At the sound of her voice, he all but yanked the door open to reveal Megan standing there, wearing black jeans and a white T-shirt. She was holding a bottle of wine in her hand, smiling, as she rhetorically asked, "Can I come in?"

***

 

For some reason he couldn't fathom, Blair was still wondering about what Jim had told him weeks ago, when he did that interview with Marks; he'd always wanted to ask him what he'd told Megan during the interview, but somehow it never came up.

Why it was so important now... Blair wasn't sure, and most likely it was just an attempt to distract himself from the notion that the nightmare could return if he fell asleep again. Maybe it wasn't actually the Golden fire people that scared him so much.

The more his thoughts kept circling around the scene in the garage, the more he remembered that feeling he'd had before Jim had come to his rescue - that utter helplessness. They weren't real, he knew that now - but it hadn't made a difference, when he'd seen them come out of every corner at that time, leaving destruction in their wake, and he'd been all alone up against them...

He hadn't even mustered any hate for Marcie Elmer. In some way, she was even crazier than Alex, and it had been worse - once again - being all alone, with the pain, and the thought that maybe Jim would find him dead.

Well, he could think of something that would probably help. It had worked before.

***

The white noise generator had done its job, but somewhere around four o'clock Jim registered with some amusement that he wasn't alone in his bed anymore. Amusement, because the kid would surely deny he'd come up here intentionally and claim temporary insanity - and underneath, all kind of worries, about just another close call, wondering just how many crazed bigots were out there that could get the same ideas as Marcie Elmer- and a guilty conscience about secrets kept.

But there hadn't been any other way.

He watched Blair sleeping for a while, recalling the last time they'd shared a bed like this, and what had come out of it. Well, not out of the fact itself; Marks had been prying into many people's private lives.

Elmer wasn't right, in the end. The solution could have been another one.

***

Not quite sure what had woken him this time, Blair was a bit startled to find Jim's gaze on him. "I'm really sorry, it's just... I didn't mean - ah, crap. I was about to go mad down there."

"Relax. No harm done."

He couldn't make his expression, but the tone of Jim's voice was unmistakably concerned, and Blair sighed in relief. He was still sorry to rob Jim of his sleep, but this was a lot better than trying to wrestle imaginary golden figures with an intent to kill.

"Nightmares again?"

"You bet. I think it had to do with Elmer, but it was the Golden Fire People all over again. The associative abilities of the human brain are amazing."

"Your brain sure is amazing," Jim quipped, and they were both laughing a little.

"For a moment there I was thinking you were talking about him. You know the guy from TV only, don't you? He came to see me when I was with you at the hospital."

That was a bit of a non-sequitur, but Blair went with it anyway. "He must be desolate. It surely wasn't how he meant for things to turn out."

"It was how neither of us meant for things to turn out." This time, Jim sounded somewhat resigned. "There's something I think you deserve to know."

"Um, okay."

"I didn't actually know about the picture until Simon showed it to me."

"I know that! What are you getting at, man?" Strange, this, Jim about to reveal secrets to him in the dark, and Blair was overcome by a sudden notion that maybe he didn't want to hear what his friend had to say.

"I've known about the book for quite a while now. We all did."

"Who's we... oh." But what did it mean?

"Chief, Marks was bragging about it to our faces. Neither of us really wanted that kind of public attention, so we - Angie, Hayworth, Elmer and me - joined forces. Worked out some plan that was supposed to make Marks back off."

To make him back off, how? //Calm down, will you?// But there was no use in this, his heartbeat was already too fast for Jim to ignore.

"No, we didn't plan to kill him. It wasn't a coincidence Elmer was there when I met Marks for the interview."

"How come you know him anyway?"

"Elmer and I served in the same unit for a while. Kind of ironic Elmer's own wife hated him so much that she took even more drastic measures - and after the first murder, she really lost it, going after all the people whose 'inclinations' he wanted to uncover. You know, we have contacts; we would have had the means to make Marks back down on this. He had some dirty secrets of his own."

"So I am *your* dirty secret?" The light tone was half fake, and Blair was aware that Jim would notice it. Odd to think of Jim taking part in a conspiracy like this, and still, Blair didn't doubt for a moment that he would have been able to pull it off, if necessary. Blair still wondered about the true explanation, but Jim gave it to him without being asked.

"It wasn't just about the four of us. Remember that mechanic, Thompson? He sang in the choir of his church, did lots of charitable stuff in his spare time. What would have happened if he'd been 'outed' in his community? Angie had enough on her plate, trying to promote her new album while the reporters were still harassing her about Weston. Jason Watts - well, you met him, he was planning on a happy future with Elmer, but Marks knew that ..."

"I think you'd have more to lose over the 'outing', so that can't be it. What did he have over me?" Blair asked quietly, putting the missing piece into place, finally.

It all seemed bizarre; he really needed a moment to adjust to the new information. Marks' icons had not quite agreed to commit a crime - but.

"Marks was about to dredge up Lash and the Golden case." The tone of Jim's voice was hard. "That picture, and what it was meant to reveal about us, was just the background to his story. He wrote the fake interviews to distract us all, but we didn't buy it, and we were right. In his real feature, he wrote something about how rules are bent and disregarded at the PD.

"Basically, he was about to destroy my reputation - and yours. I couldn't let him do that."

There was no further clarification needed. Lash could have been apprehended at the church that time, and Blair had been wrestling a long time with regret over his stupid actions that day. The incident in the garage... he was still grateful he didn't remember.

"You took a big risk - for me."

"For both of us. But it wasn't enough, obviously. You still got hurt."

"Which was not your fault. And you were just in time, as always. Thank you."

"You're welcome." Jim's features finally relaxed into a smile

That easy. Blair thought that Marks had really gotten it all wrong from the beginning, like Mrs. Elmer, the way self-righteous fanatics always did - Angie's songs were giving hope to a lot of people, so what the hell did it ever matter if she'd posed naked for a photographer ten years ago? The same with Rebecca Hayworth. The politician was well-known and liked in Cascade - her sexual preferences had absolutely nothing to do with how she did her job, right? And Elmer might have made some wrong choices, but that was something that should have been cleared between him and his wife, not in a book.

As for Jim - the work he did was so very important.

What Marks had suggested in his book was just silly, but if he had prodded some more, he could have found something they really needed to keep a secret...

It didn't really matter that he'd even been ready to bend the law on this a bit, it was the 'why' that counted. As always, Jim had tried his best to protect him.

The thought brought a surge of emotion, but Blair decided he'd already deprived Jim of a good night's sleep, so there was no reason to overdo it, and he covered it with a joke: "But if you're still feeling guilty I wouldn't mind if you wanted to cook for, let's say, two weeks...?"

"You wish." Jim chuckled.

There would be no more nightmares tonight.

***

Life was very good at the moment.

Sandy had left the hospital a couple of days ago, and she and Rafe had finished the paperwork today. The case had brought more losses than all of them would have hoped, but it was now closed, another fanatical maniac off the streets, and...

Good things come to those who wait, her grandmother always used to say, and Megan couldn't help but think she was right.

With a smile she reached over to turn off the lamp on the nightstand without ever waking Brian who was sleeping soundly, snuggled close against her. Darkness enveloped them like a soft blanket, and she drew the sheets higher around them, before she finally fell asleep.

The End