The Right Path

Written by Lyn
Cover by Patt
Artwork by Patt & Nicci

"Humanity has long dug into its past in the hope that it will shed light on its future. Perhaps what this reveals is that it is the best of ourselves that will survive and lead us through the next millennium. Watching our every step will be our tribal protectors -- the sentinels -- and their insight will further illuminate the spiritual connection of all things.

The End."

Decisively, Blair punched the key to close the document on his laptop and turned his attention instead to his journal. The end, he thought to himself, the end of my career, almost the end of my friendship with Jim. He wondered if Naomi truly understood the damage done by just the press of a key and a phone call. Of course she didn't. Sure, she'd begged them to sort things out, not to sacrifice their friendship, but even she knew, that for Blair, the loss ran much deeper than Jim's friendship. As far as anyone knew, everything was fine now. For Blair though, it only made things more uncertain, more complicated. His feelings for Jim had blossomed into more than friendship, and the thought that there'd never be a chance to tell Jim how he truly felt had been as frightening as standing up on that dais and declaring himself a fraud. It was of course a moot point. Jim didn't know how Blair felt and Blair was less certain than ever of letting him know.

It was more the fear of the future that now led Blair to keep his silence. It wasn't the first time that Jim had felt betrayed by Blair, or vice versa and, despite their heart to heart talk in the hospital, and Jim's acknowledgement of Blair's career sacrifice, Blair wasn't entirely sure the issue of trust - of Jim's trust in Blair, and Blair's in Jim - might not rear its ugly head once more and bite them on the ass.

Sighing, he picked up his pen and opened his journal. Maudlin thoughts. He attempted to turn his mind to more positive things. The beginning. The beginning of a new chapter in his life, the beginning of his partnership with Jim. No more "Stay in the truck, Sandburg." No more "You're not a cop, Sandburg." Blair smiled and began to write.

The big question here: Is this what I want? The truth - no obfuscations? Yes and no. I want my PhD. Thinking back on it now though, my dissertation was unrealistic even if I'd found ten Sentinels. There were too many ethical and moral issues to consider. Jim trusted my vow to keep his identity a secret and despite my assurances that I would, I honestly had no idea just how to do that without compromising my research. That's me. Good old Blair 'Blinders' Sandburg. Worry about the consequences later.

Well, this time, the consequences have caused me to lose everything. Almost everything. When I held the press conference, I finally felt free - free of the guilt for the events my stupidity had caused. I felt it was the only thing that could be done and I know it was certainly the right thing to do in order to honor my promise to Jim. And this time that's what it came down to. As much as I like to remind Jim that not everything is about him, that sometimes he's just way too self-absorbed for his own good, this time he was right, and the only one who was going to suffer here was Jim.

I have regrets, I'll always have regrets over losing what I thought was the most important part of my life. But I was wrong. Being Jim's partner, Jim's Guide is the path I chose the moment he walked into my office at Rainier, and it's more important than any degree and certainly more important than three million dollars, although God knows, right now I could use the cash. That doesn't mean I won't miss my teaching, my studying, my place in the academic world, and I certainly don't want the stigma of fraud to be attached to my name after the hours of research, the blood, sweat and tears I've shed over this project - especially knowing that I didn't lie at all.

But my relationship with Jim became paramount without me really noticing it. Our friendship - and if I'm going to be totally honest here - my feelings for Jim were what really decided it for me, and gave me the courage to abandon my life's work, even though I still expect to be able to use what I've learned and turn the whole mess into something of benefit.

I'm still avoiding the real question here. Can I do this? Can I be a cop - and more importantly, Jim's partner? Can I risk failing? Screwing up? Letting Jim down?

I know what a shrink would say - my self-esteem has taken a battering over the past year. And it's true; each time Jim has accused me of betraying his trust, of letting him down, I've felt it like a physical blow. I know I fool people. I project this facade of self-confidence that isn't real. I started building it when I was little; every time Naomi left me with friends, I knew that I didn't matter. I was convinced that her beliefs, and every new boyfriend who shared her bed, were more important than me. Why else would a mother leave her little boy so often? I know now that it's not true, but 'knowing' really doesn't help much when Jim starts throwing accusations around. It just chips away at my self-confidence, and I don't know how long I can hold on to it.

More depressing thoughts.

Blair put down his pen and closed his journal, then leaned back against the pillows and shut his eyes. He was tired - soul deep.

There was a tap on the door and Jim opened it without waiting for an invitation. "Still going to burn the midnight oil, Chief?" he asked.

Blair smiled. "It's a tough habit to break." He gestured toward the bed. "Come on in, man."

Jim did so, sitting on the edge of the bed when Blair sat up and scooted further up. Blair waited.

"I just wanted to say…" Jim trailed off, his gaze dropping down to glance at Blair's journal then lifting back up to Blair's face. "I wanted to thank you for doing this for me."

"Not just for you," Blair replied. "This is for me too. I have to earn a paycheck somehow."

Jim winced as though he'd been slapped. "Sorry," he replied, "I didn't mean -"

Blair reached out and grasped Jim's hand, squeezing it firmly. "Enough!" he scolded gently. "No more apologies. No more what-ifs. No regrets." He sighed and let go of Jim's hand reluctantly. "It's over. Done with and we're still walking on eggshells around each other." He leaned forward and pinned Jim with a stern gaze. "Answer me this. Do you want me as your partner or is the offer of the badge just some sort of placatory measure to make yourself, and me feel better?"

Jim stood and began to pace the few steps available in the small room. Blair gave a weak chuckle. "Gee, man, way to reassure a guy."

Jim's blue eyes turned a glacier-like glare on him. "There have been a lot of words spoken over the past few days, Chief. A lot of misunderstandings. I just don't want to screw this up. The fact is I need… want you as my partner. I just need to know you're sure, that you're not going to turn around and say you can't do it."

"Still don't trust me, huh?" Blair quipped then closed his eyes tightly at his poor choice of words and the flicker of hurt that passed quickly over Jim's face before his features were once more schooled into neutrality. "I told you once that going back to the university fulltime would be like getting off the roller coaster and back on the merry-go-round. I still feel that way. Now that it's crunch time, I'm just not sure if I can… I don't want to let you down again."

"You'll be fine," Jim said. "You sure you want to stay at the Academy dorm during the week? The Chief's given you special dispensation to come home each night if you want to."

"Much as I'd like to, man, I don't think that's a good idea. Simon's already caught some flak over me getting a detective's badge straight out of the Academy, I don't want to focus any more attention on us than we've had already."

Jim managed a small smile. "We've certainly had more than our fifteen minutes of fame," he agreed.

Blair wagged a finger at Jim. "And I'm not sure I want to know how you managed to get around me cutting my hair." He was relieved to see a smile finally grace Jim's face.

"Let's keep that as my little secret."

Blair sobered again, other concerns surfacing. "You sure you're going to be okay without me?"

Jim shrugged. "I'll take it easy with the senses if I can. Fact is, after all that's happened, I feel like I'm suddenly back at the beginning again, when my senses first came back online."

Blair sat forward, frowning. "You having trouble?"

Jim waved away his concern. "I'm just… so aware of them. Seems I got to a point over the last couple of years, I got comfortable with them, like they were just a part of me. Now -"

"They are a part of you," Blair interjected. "They're a part of who you are."

Again there was a glimmer of displeasure on Jim's face but he merely said, "I'll be fine. Simon's partnering Connor with me for the first few days at least. She knows what's going on."

"Any problems and you'll call me though, right?"

Jim nodded. "Ditto." He walked to the door. "Get some sleep, huh? You've got an early start in the morning."

"Night, Jim."

"Night, Blair."

Lying in bed, Jim mulled over his conversation with Blair. Try as he might to put Simon's solution to the disaster that had befallen them in its proper perspective, it still bothered him on too many levels.

He had no doubts to Blair's ability to be a cop, and a damn good one at that. He'd said as much at the hospital and, though Blair might have thought it merely an olive branch, a sorry attempt to shore up their crumbling friendship, or paltry gratitude for Blair's sacrifice, he truly had meant every word. He only wished it hadn't taken such forfeit on Blair's part for him to say it.

Even now, though a small lick of anger still burned his gut whenever he thought how close he'd come to losing any chance at a private life, he knew that Blair wasn't to blame for the whole mess. Blair had been foolish, perhaps, trusting his mother with access to his dissertation, but he could hardly be blamed for not knowing just how far Naomi would go to help her beloved only son. Then again, Naomi couldn't really be taken to task either. She hadn't known the importance of the need for absolute secrecy about Blair's dissertation subject. The ones at fault here were the headline hungry press and the university, greedy themselves for a share in what would have been Blair's fame and fortune, and well deserved by Blair at that.

So Jim's secret was safe, in a way, and all was right with the world. Except for Blair's world and Jim's too, for that matter. Jim had no doubt that Blair's time at the Academy would be difficult. The word was already out that the disgraced fraud from a few weeks before was now being welcomed with open arms into a law enforcement career - and he certainly wasn't starting at the bottom along with the other raw recruits. Jim wasn't about to fool himself with the notion that anyone but him could see that in the past four years, Blair had already earned that gold badge a hundred times over.

Trust. It always came down to that one word. Jim had used it himself so many times over the past year. I need to have a partner I can trust. That much was true, but how could he have ever not trusted Blair? This was a man who had saved him from being crushed by a garbage truck minutes after being slammed up against a wall by a pissed off cop.

He'd refuted Blair's notion that many of his responses were fear-based but he'd known, even as he'd argued, his reaction even then had been fear-based. It was habit born from a childhood where he'd had to keep his abilities secret, not wanting to risk being found out, his father's fear that he'd be thought of as a freak always uppermost in his mind.

He'd trusted that Blair could help him with his senses from the first day they'd met. Blair's innate ability to think outside the box, to come up with solutions to whatever problem Jim's senses were creating, had saved his ass on more occasions that he wanted to think about and, despite Blair's confession that much of it came off the top of his head, Jim had trusted him to guide him and had placed his faith in Blair from the onset.

Of course, Blair's entrance into the Academy brought with it its own share of fresh concerns for Jim. Did anyone who knew, now actually believe that Sandburg's dissertation was false? The stirrings of disbelief were already becoming known in this, Jim's first full week back at work, with the Chief bullying Simon into allowing Narcotics to borrow Jim for a drug bust due to go down in the warehouse district sometime this week. In a department known to jealously guard their own manpower and refuse to accept outside assistance even from personnel in their own PD, it seemed that suddenly Jim Ellison was a popular guy.

Groaning at the never-ending circle of worry each new thought brought to the surface, Jim turned over and took his frustration out on his pillow, punching it a few times until it flattened sufficiently into submission. He lay, watching dawn slowly light the sky, his thoughts, and his senses fully on the man sleeping restlessly downstairs.

Megan Connor quickly wadded up the sheet of paper in her hand and stuffed it into the handbag at her feet as Jim Ellison walked into the bullpen. She sighed, knowing the day was not going to be an easy one. "Jim, Sandy get off to the Academy all right?"

"Yep," Jim replied tersely. He hung his jacket on the hook behind his desk and sat down, reaching out in the same movement to turn on his computer.

"Good." Megan took a sip of her now cold coffee and grimaced. "So, it's you and me for the next few days." She stood and walked over to Jim's desk, ignoring his glare when she perched herself on the edge. "Sandy phoned me yesterday," she said quietly, though she thought secrecy here in Major Crime was a moot point now. "He gave me a few pointers on how to help you. I know I'll probably never be as good as he is at guiding you but I'll do my best."

"Just stay out of my way and we'll do just fine, Connor," Jim growled. He leaned forward, scowling at the computer screen, his nose almost touching it.

"Something wrong with your eyes?" Megan asked solicitously.

"No! Just… someone's fucked with my computer," Jim grumbled. "Damn screen's too bright." He fiddled with a knob or two, then sighed almost sub-vocally before sitting back and rubbing at his temples.


"For God's sake, Connor, I'm fine!" Jim exploded. "You're supposed to be my partner -" He seemed to almost choke on the word. "- Not my goddamned babysitter -"

Megan stood, her short-fused temper flaring. "Well, pardon me for caring!" She leaned over until she was almost nose to nose with Ellison. "Let's just get one thing straight, Jim. I'm doing this for Sandy, not for you. If I had my way, I'd -" Her mouth snapped shut, and she bit back the hurtful words and straightened. "I'm sorry," she said. "I have a few worries of my own right now. I shouldn't have said that."

Jim too looked instantly contrite. "My fault," he conceded. After a pause, he added, "Everything all right at home?"

Two could play Jim's game, Megan decided, despite her earlier chagrin. "Fine." She looked at her watch. "We've got a meeting with the thugs from Narcotics in ten minutes. You ready?" She had already decided before Jim had arrived not to tell him that Blair had made her promise to call him at the slightest hint of a problem with Jim's senses, or that he had confided that he'd throw in the whole Academy thing if there was any inkling that Jim was unable to cope without his guide. That piece of news had troubled her. After all, wasn't Sandy being offered the badge as a way to keep him with Jim? It sounded to her as though he wasn't entirely convinced he was doing the right thing.

"We going?" Jim asked, breaking into her disquieting thoughts. He stood at the doorway, an impatient look on his face.

Megan nodded and followed him out. It was going to be a very long two weeks.

Jim was well aware of the furtive glances sent his way as he and Connor entered the Narcotic Division bullpen. He chose to ignore them; he was here to do his job and then get back to Major Crime, where he knew though no one had 'officially' said anything, he was accepted as a valued member of the team even before the news of his abilities had become public. He knew too that Blair would be welcomed into the MC family, with no doubts about his confession or his lack of experience or ability tainting his position. Secrets had no place there.

Detective Ron Calhoun stood up from his desk when they entered and cast a leering eye over Megan. Jim glared back at the man but Calhoun merely gave Jim a smirk. "Well, I've got admit your new partner is a whole lot easier on the eye than Sandburg, Ellison. Probably better at the job too."

Bristling, Jim opened his mouth to make a suitable retort but felt Megan squeeze his arm, then she stepped in front of him. Holding out her hand, she took Calhoun's and shook it, giving him a guileless smile. Jim hid his own grin and waited. Connor's wit was as dry and sarcastic as his own, and he'd been on the receiving end of it more than once.

"Detective," Megan greeted a blushing Calhoun, "I don't think we've met before. Inspector Megan Connor, New South Wales Police."

"And if all of them look like you, honey, I think I might put in for a transfer of my own."

Megan shrugged. "Do you surf, Detective?"

Calhoun visibly preened. "I've spent some time on a board."

"Don't surf at Bondi," Megan advised the overweight detective seriously but before he could respond, she continued, "The life guards would probably call Whale-Watch."

There was a moment of tension-filled silence before the rest of the officers in the room digested the meaning of the Aussie's words and burst into laughter and Calhoun blustered, his round face reddening.

"If we've finished trading insults," a voice said over the noise, "can we get back to work?"

Everyone looked up to acknowledge Captain Marshall, the man in charge of the Narcotics Division. Jim nodded to him. "Captain, this is Inspector Megan Connor, my… partner for the next few days. What do you have for us?"

Marshall shook Megan's hand then walked over to Calhoun's desk and gestured for everyone to listen. "We have a major drug bust, as far as we know, it's party drugs but spiked with a lethal combination. There have been three deaths on the West Coast and I don't want that experience repeated here. Rob Harrison," he indicated a lanky, thin man with a pock-marked face and long curly hair not unlike Sandburg's trademark locks, "is our man on the scene. He's already been in contact with the distributors and will be inside the warehouse to make the buy -"

"Let me go in," Jim interrupted. "I've had some experience with drug buys. The Golden case, a few years back -"

"Yeah, yeah, we heard all about your heroic exploits," Calhoun said nastily, "talking that partner of yours down after he shot up the parking garage." He snickered and a few others joined in.

"Then spent the next forty-eight hours on life support because the dealers thought he was one of us," Jim shot back. There was an uncomfortable silence before Marshall took back control.

"All right already!" Marshall held up both hands to stave off another round of bickering. He glared at Calhoun. "I'm aware of your feelings at having Ellison, or anyone outside of Narcotics in on this bust, Calhoun, but the fact is you don't have a say in this, so suck it up."

"If you don't want me on the inside, why exactly am I here?" Jim asked.

The captain stared at Jim for a moment then sighed. "Frankly, I don't know. All I can tell you is the Chief is pretty antsy about these drugs getting onto the streets - it is an election year after all - and insisted that we take you and your partner along with us."

"It's not right," Calhoun interjected, "when we've got a decent arrest rate of our own, to be told by some shoeshine upstairs, that we ain't good enough."

"I'm not thrilled about being here either, Calhoun," Jim replied. "I've got plenty of my own cases piling up in my inbox, so let's just get this done and get out of each other's faces. Deal?"

Calhoun didn't reply but gave a terse nod and the captain got back to setting up the bust.

"I can't believe you did that, Connor," Jim thundered as he exited the elevator and strode along the corridor toward the Major Crime bullpen. Megan had to run to catch up.

"Ellison, slow down!" she demanded. "I don't know what's got you in such a tizz. We caught the bastards, didn't we?"

Jim rounded on her, his eyes blazing fiery ice. Grabbing her arm, he pulled her into the break room and stormed inside behind her. The room was empty. "You could have blown the whole damn thing!" he hissed.

Megan's eyes widened in offence. "What on earth are you talking about? You were able to give the order to move in before the Narc guys even knew there was a problem. If it hadn't been for you, Harrison would be dead now."

"I'm not talking about that," Jim said harshly. "I'm talking about you shouting at me. "Ellison, can you hear anything? Ellison, are you okay?" And what was with you shaking me like that?"

"I thought you'd… whatever it is Sandy called it. You went dead quiet and wouldn't answer me."

"It's called zoning and I wasn't, I was listening. You realize how much attention you drew to us? If anyone there today believed Sandburg's fraud confession, they're likely doubting it now. He sacrificed a hell of a lot, so that my abilities didn't become public knowledge. Even Sandburg wouldn't have been stupid enough to -" He broke off, remembering the day in the church, during the Lash case when Blair had done exactly that. That had been different. It was only a few weeks into their partnership. They'd had no real idea of just how good Jim's senses were and Blair had been a novice at police work.

"Blair was never stupid," Megan replied tartly. "He made a mistake or two. Haven't you gotten over it yet? As I recall where Alex Barnes was concerned, you made a few of your own."

"We both made mistakes and we've both paid for it, but you're right, Sandburg's losses far outweigh my own. That's why -"

"If you say that's why you're getting him the badge, I'll never forgive you."

Jim glared at her. "That's why I need him with me, because I never want to betray his trust again and because he's the only partner I want."

Megan's eyes softened at Jim's confession. "You care for him very much, don't you?"

"He's my best friend."

Megan reached out and touched his arm. "That's all?"

"Conversation's over, Connor. Just stay out of my way and we'll get on just fine."

"I'm sorry," she said finally, her face reddening. "Still," she added mulishly, "I wasn't shouting. You obviously had your hearing turned right up or however it is you do what you do. They looked more surprised when you told them Harrison had been made."

It was Jim's turn to look chagrined. "I didn't think, just acted."

Megan lifted her chin defiantly. "So did I. If anything had happened to you, Sandy would have my guts for garters." She waved away Jim's puzzled look at her Aussie slang and gave him a small smile. "I don't think I'm cut out for this guide thing. When's Sandy due back?"

"Two weeks." Jim allowed his temper to deflate. Connor might be a seasoned cop and a pretty good one at that but she was new to the sentinel thing. "I'll be glad when he gets back too."

Photo Manip by Patt Rose

Blair hesitated for a moment before knocking on the Commander's door. He knew why he'd been ordered to come here and he sincerely hoped it wasn't going to appear on his report. He could hear Simon now. "Sandburg, you are not a cop."

"Yeah, well, I nearly am, man," Blair whispered to himself, "and it still scares me half to death." He tugged nervously at his ponytail and opened the door at the terse command from within. Stepping into the office, he saluted the Commander, a large, jowl-faced, stern-looking man, then stood at attention. "Cadet Sandburg, sir, you asked to see me?"

"Hmph." Commander Jensen studied the folder on his desk for a moment then looked up at Blair, his displeasure obvious. "You've been here three days, Cadet and you're already stirring things up."

"Sir, I -"

"You think you're better suited to teaching the Ethics Course than Sergeant Martinez?"

"No, sir." Blair shook his head emphatically. "We were discussing various situations and I just mentioned that in my experience, there were occasions where you couldn't always go by the book. I meant no disrespect to Sergeant Martinez."

"In your experience?" The Commander leaned back in his chair and steepled his chubby fingers on the desktop. "Let me tell you something, Cadet. You have no experience. You're just a wet behind the ears rookie who's here to learn how to be a good cop. If you can't cut that, you know where the door is. Certain members of the Academy faculty have already voiced their doubts over you being allowed to take a shortcut into this course, not to mention certain advantages being given, particularly in regard to dress codes." He looked pointedly at Blair's hair. "If you don't toe the line, you will be summarily failed in all subjects. Is that understood, Cadet?"

Blair studied the carpet at his feet. "Yes, sir. I apologize. I really wasn't second-guessing Sergeant -"

"That will be all, Cadet."

"Yes, sir." Blair saluted and turned on his heel, trying not to slam the door behind him. Of all the pig-headed, nasty… He sucked in a deep breath, counted slowly to ten and made his way to his dorm room. A couple of the other cadets had invited him to join them at dinner, something that had cheered him immensely initially. It seemed not everyone doubted his right to be here. Suddenly his appetite was gone.

Lying down on his bed, he debated calling Jim, but just as quickly decided against it. His troubled mood would be more than obvious to Jim and he didn't want his partner to come rushing down here. This was something he needed to handle himself.

It had taken some time for Blair to make it up to Major Crime but he'd taken heart in the fact that the majority of people had appeared genuinely pleased to see him. There had been the odd scowl and muttering but Blair determinedly ignored them, and smiled and chatted with those who greeted him.

He was so glad to be home; nothing was going to darken his weekend. He'd phoned Jim the night before, a little disappointed that his partner hadn't checked in with him sooner, but Jim had reassured him that everything was fine and he'd just been snowed under with work.

Blair had given Jim the same excuse for his own lack of phone calls, not wanting to mention his brush with the Commander or the fact that a few cadets and lecturers seemed disgruntled with his abbreviated course at the Academy. Quite frankly, he didn't blame them at all. They weren't aware of just how up close and personal he'd been with police procedure over the past four years, and he was a fraud after all. That didn't mean of course, that he wasn't hurt by the dirty looks and remarks, both whispered and spoken aloud. He'd decided after his carpeting over speaking out in class, to simply keep his mouth shut, absorb as much knowledge as he could and get back to where he was meant to be - at Jim's side.

He hadn't had time to give much thought to his growing feelings for Jim and he had to admit it was something he didn't want to examine too closely just yet. He certainly didn't intend to burden Jim with a declaration of love, not entirely sure whether Jim would laugh it off or punch his lights out. And he definitely didn't need the specter of what such a relationship might do to their partnership looming over his head. What choices would he need to make then? Move out of the loft, abandon the idea of being Jim's partner?

He hadn't, for one minute, actually questioned why a supposedly heterosexual man would suddenly fall in love with his equally het partner. He'd never actually put himself in any category. While he hadn't had sex with another man, he'd certainly admired one or two now and then for their good looks and charm, and he'd experimented a little with a gay college friend while still in his teens and going through the doubts that many a teen does. While many people seemed to think that though Jim was certainly a good-looking man, he was woefully lacking in charm, Blair knew better. He'd watched Jim respond more to people as his senses had come under control. To Blair's analytical mind, it made sense and simply reassured him that whatever he was doing to help Jim control his senses, he was doing it right. They'd been through an awful lot together, particularly in the past year. The emotions of all that would certainly be enough, he supposed, to stir desires that had lain dormant till now.

Blair wasn't sure whether to be relieved or not about Jim's report that he'd had no problems with his senses while Blair had been gone. Perhaps his days as Jim's guide were truly at an end. He supposed it was inevitable. After four years, it was natural to assume Jim would regain enough control and knowledge that Blair's help would no longer be necessary. Perhaps this was where the path had been meant to lead. Change wasn't necessarily a bad thing, Naomi had always said, and she was certainly proof of that with her apparently ready acceptance of Simon's offer of a badge to Blair. Blair hadn't been totally fooled though. Past the still obvious guilt and patently fake smile, he'd recognized the glimmer of uncertainty and disapproval on Naomi's face that day in the bullpen. He'd told her before she'd flown out to LA that there was no going back, that this was where he wanted to be. She hadn't entirely believed him, that much was obvious, but she'd simply kissed his cheek, stroked a curl away from his face and said, "I hear you, Blair."

Once out of the elevator, Blair quickened his pace as he headed for the familiar doors of Major Crime. The bullpen was almost deserted save for a couple of detectives Blair didn't know that well. He was just about to head out to the break room when Simon's door opened. "Sandburg!"

He turned, aware of the wide smile on his face. "Jim! Thought I'd missed you."

Jim strode toward him, a matching grin on his own face but he stopped short a few inches away as though unsure what to do. Feeling equally ill at ease, Blair stuck out a hand and was surprised to find himself pulled forward and wrapped up in Jim's strong arms. It was a brief hug but said more than words could ever convey. Jim let him go then grasped Blair's shoulders, squeezing gently. "You're looking good, Chief. Looks like you got through the first week of the Academy unscathed."

"Mostly," Blair said, then wisely decided to say no more when a small frown creased Jim's forehead. A deep throat clearing from behind Jim had Blair looking up to see Simon smiling at him. "Hey, Si - Captain."

"Good to see you too, Sandburg. How's it going at the Academy?"

"Really good," Blair said but he could tell neither man was buying it. He shrugged ruefully. "As well as can be expected." He looked earnestly at Jim. "It's fine, really."

Jim simply stared at him for a moment then nodded. "Good." He looked at his watch. "I've still got a couple of hours before I finish up. You want to hang around or what?"

Blair considered it for a moment then shook his head. "Can't say I've missed the paperwork. Tell you what, I'll go home, do some laundry, take a shower and cook dinner…"

"Better yet, why don't we head out to Roma's for dinner?" Simon chimed in. "I know Taggert and Brown and the others would like to catch up with you."

Blair nodded. "Sounds like a plan? Jim?"

Jim nodded in agreement. "Sounds great."

Blair rubbed his hands together. "I'll make the reservation for seven. See you then, Simon - Capt -"

Simon held up a hand. "Simon will be fine for now, Sandburg. Once you've got that badge in your pocket though…"

"I get the message, sir." Sketching a wave to both men, Blair turned and hurried out of the bullpen. It was so good to be home.

Blair had only been to Roma's once before, with Jim's brother after they'd extricated him from a murder rap. The restaurant was expensive and extravagant, and Blair was stunned when Simon generously offered to foot the bill. After a token protest, Jim offered to share the cost and Simon agreed. They'd ordered drinks and Blair headed off to the men's room while they waited for them to be delivered. In the lobby, he saw Megan and Rafe.

Megan's head was bent, her long curls obscuring her face. Rafe stood close to her, handing her a handkerchief, whispering softly. Blair's keen eyes took in the body language. Interesting.

"Hey, guys! You're late," he announced.

His words had an instantaneous effect as Rafe's head shot up and he took a step back before turning to Blair, a somewhat nervous smile on his face. "Sandburg! How are you?"

Blair took Rafe's proffered hand and shook it. "I'm fine. It's good to be home, even if it's only for a weekend. Hey, Megan."

Megan looked up then, her face flushed and she dabbed quickly at her eyes before giving Blair a tremulous smile. "Hi, Sandy. You're a sight for sore eyes."

Blair indicated over his shoulder. "Everybody's inside. Table Four. Jim and Simon are arguing over the bill and Joel can't decide what to order. Henri suggested he have a little of everything and I think Joel's actually considering it."

The other two chuckled. "I'll see you in there," Megan said, "just need to freshen up a bit."

"Okay." Rafe headed into the restaurant, leaving Megan and Blair standing together in a somewhat awkward silence. Blair took a step forward, reaching out to touch Megan's hand.

"Everything all right?" he asked.

Megan sniffed. "Not really. It's just been a bad week."

"Jim giving you a hard time?" Blair asked, only half-joking. "I know he can be a real bear to work with."

"We've had our disagreements," Megan replied. "We'll work it out. At least he hasn't zoned yet… or so he says…"

"Yeah, well, he doesn't like to admit to his weaknesses. You sure you're okay?"

Megan shook her head. "I've been offered a permanent position in Cascade," she said.

Blair grinned. "Hey, that's great! Congratulations."

Megan still looked troubled. "I got a letter from home the other day. My dad's ill… end stage cancer and my family wants me to come home."

"Oh God, Megan, I'm so sorry." Blair reached out and pulled Megan into a hug. "Anything I can do?" He felt the answering shake of her head against his shoulder before she shifted back, wiping again at her eyes.

"I haven't decided what to do yet. I'll go home for a couple of weeks at least, see Dad."

Blair smiled at her gently. "Rafe's got broad shoulders," he said. "Good for crying on."

She smiled through her tears. "He's a good man."

"That he is."

She waved toward the ladies' room. "I'm just going to freshen up. I'll be back in a tick."


"Sandy?" Blair turned at the doorway to the men's room. "It's good to have you home," Megan said. "Another week and you'll be back for good. I know Jim will be pleased when that happens."

"Me too, Megan."

"Oh, man," Blair groaned. He leaned back against the sofa cushions with a sated look on his face and rubbed his belly. "I'm stuffed!"

Jim smiled as he pulled open the fridge, sticking his head inside to peruse the contents. "Not to mention a little tipsy," he observed, not unkindly. He straightened with two bottles of water in his hand and held one out toward Blair, who shook his head.

"No, thanks, man, don't want to dilute that great wine."

"Mmm-hmm." Jim put a bottle back, twisted the cap on the other and took a long drink. He wiped his mouth and set the bottle down on the counter before coming into the living room. "It's good to have you home," he said. "Everything's all right at the Academy?"

Blair sat up. "Yeah, you know. There's bound to be some tension. Nothing I can't handle," he added quickly when Jim opened his mouth. He grew more serious then. "I have to admit I'm a little nervous about heading to the firing range next week."

Jim nodded and an uneasy silence hung between them for a moment before he spoke. "If you want," he began, sounding somewhat uncertain, "I could take you down to the PD range tomorrow. Let you get some practice in."

"No, thanks, Jim." Blair shook his head. "More than enough time for that when I get back." He leaned forward. "It's fine," he assured his partner earnestly. "Really."

Jim nodded. "Okay." He walked over to the couch and sat down beside Blair. "You talk to Connor?"

"Yeah. She's got some problems at home. Her dad's dying but she's been offered a permanent transfer here. It's hard for her to make a decision in circumstances like that."

"That's tough."

"Yeah, try to go a little easier on her next week, man. She's got a lot on her mind." Blair grinned conspiratorially. "And I suspect if you're too hard on her, a certain detective is gonna come down on you."

"Rafe?" Jim asked. "I did wonder about those two."

"Yeah. Nice, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Jim looked down at his hands. "Look, Chief, I just wanted to say thank you… for doing this for me… for us."

Blair smiled and reached out to rest his hand on Jim's knee. "No thanks necessary." He gave a small laugh. "It took me four years to realize I'm right where I want to be." He turned to face Jim. "Thank you for wanting me." He felt his face heat when he realized the ambiguity of his words. Pulling his hand away, he looked across the room toward the balcony windows. "That's not what I meant…"

"I know what you meant," Jim reassured him. "Our relationship goes way beyond the Sentinel/Guide thing or even partners. You're my best friend. I can't think of anyone else I'd want backing me up."

"Thanks." Blair nodded, unsure whether he was relieved or regretful of Jim's obvious misunderstanding of his faux pas. He yawned, then stood. "I've got an early start in the morning. Think I'll hit the sack."

"Yeah, me too." Jim stood as well and headed for the front door to start his customary checking of the loft.

Blair watched him a moment then turned toward his room. "Night, Jim. I'll see you next week."

Blair settled back on his bed in the dorm room and studied the patchy ceiling. It had been quite a weekend. Following dinner on Saturday night, he and Jim had spent Sunday at the pier, walking along the same path as they had when they'd first discovered Blair's dissertation had been leaked to the press. This time though, there had been no angry words, no rancor. They'd talked a lot, about inconsequential things at first, finally getting back to what seemed to be Jim's main concern: whether Blair was truly doing what he wanted to do.

The conversation had bothered Blair a lot. It seemed to him that, no matter what he said, no matter how earnestly he spoke, Jim didn't truly believe that Blair wanted to be a cop, and Jim's partner. Was that because of the guilt Jim still obviously felt over what had transpired in the past weeks, or was Jim somehow trying to talk Blair out of the whole thing? If that was the case, Blair could think of only one reason for Jim to do that. Jim didn't think Blair could cut it. Perhaps, despite his words of gratitude the night before, he was having second thoughts about Blair remaining his partner. It wouldn't be the first time, he thought bitterly. Trust was big on Jim's agenda, and on Blair's too. Did he really want to partner Jim, knowing the detective didn't trust him to do the job right?

Blair was at a loss over what to do. He'd used up all the words he thought would convince Jim of his certainty that he was taking the right path, making the right decision. And for someone as verbal as Blair, that was no mean feat.

Perhaps he should rethink the whole thing, Blair thought. He could leave Cascade, go to Seattle maybe or even New York. Get a job teaching school… or something.

He shook himself mentally. No, he'd come this far, he wasn't going to let Jim or Simon or anyone else down. He'd prove to Jim that he could be a good cop, the best partner…

Of course then there was the whole other thing of practically blurting out his true feelings for Jim. Blair's face heated with embarrassment just at the memory. Thankfully Jim hadn't seemed to pick up on the true meaning behind his words and, in some ways, Blair was sorry about that. Then again even if there was the slightest chance that Jim loved him too, that would just make it harder later, when… if Jim decided Blair had screwed up again and wanted to end it all. The last time Jim had pushed him out, it had almost broken Blair completely, more so than the diss. He wouldn't take that risk again.

Turning onto his side, he looked drowsily at the clock and groaned. He'd been lying here for two hours, mulling over the weekend. In another two hours he had to be up, ready to face the firing range for the first time. He shouldn't be worried, he knew. He'd held guns before, even fired them, but this would be the real test. Was he strong enough to face someone with a gun and kill him should the need arise? He pushed his doubts away. There was no choice to be made. He'd accepted that when he took the badge from Simon, and he knew he loved Jim enough to do what had to be done.

Photo Manip by Patt Rose

Jim arrived at the station the next morning and headed straight for the break room. He'd gotten up too late to have breakfast after having spent half the night lying awake, worrying about what Blair would be facing today. Blair seemed determined to get through the Academy and, as much as Jim wanted that too, his mind kept telling him that this wasn't where Blair was meant to be. The man was a brilliant scholar, who should be basking in the accolades for his thesis, heading off to digs, teaching… He sighed. It was over, couldn't be undone. The best Jim could do now was trust in Blair to pick up the pieces and make this new life just as successful as his first.

Jim had to admit that Blair's words the night before gave him pause for thought. "Thank you for wanting me." He'd immediately been embarrassed and flustered and Jim had rushed to reassure him that he understood what he was trying to say. Jim thought he had but he knew that even he had been wondering about this new aspect to their relationship; Blair as his partner, had felt pleasure in knowing that Blair would be at his side both on and off the job in just a week more. Even Connor seemed to think there was more to the partnership than met the eye.

They were close, closer even than most partners on the force but after experiencing what he had at the fountain the day Blair had drowned, Jim knew there was a bond between them as sentinel and guide. It was part of what Sandburg liked to call the Sentinel thing; his catchphrase for anything to do with Jim's senses that he hadn't quite gotten a handle on. They were after all both straight men with more than a passing interest in the opposite sex.

Megan was seated at the table when Jim walked into the break room and headed for the snack dispenser. His stomach churned at the thought of so much sugar first thing in the morning after the rich meal he'd enjoyed the night before and he turned away. Sandburg's healthy habits were rubbing off on him. Megan looked up at his entrance and Jim could see she'd been crying. "Connor? What's wrong?"

She shook her head at first then broke down again, lowering her head and sobbing quietly into a handkerchief. Jim walked over and crouched beside her.


The use of her first name seemed to bring her out of herself a little and she looked at him, dabbing at the mascara that streaked her cheeks. "My dad. My dad died last night. I should have been there." It was all she could manage before she broke down once more.

Jim reached up and squeezed her shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "Rafe just got here. I'll get him."

Her eyes widened at that, but then she nodded. "Thank you."

Jim stood and headed to the bullpen, where he found Rafe engaged in friendly banter with his partner, Henri. Jim pulled the younger detective aside. "Megan's in the break room. She's… upset. I think she needs you with her."

"Jim -" Rafe began but Jim waved away what he knew was going to be a lengthy explanation.

"Just go," he said. "Be with her. I'll make sure you get some privacy."

Rafe nodded. "Thanks."

He'd fucked up! Until Blair had picked up the gun and set his sights on the man-shaped target in front of him, he had felt confident and in control. The weapon was heavy in his hand but instead of being a reassuring weight, a measure of safety and protection, it pulled him down. His hand was slick against the grip, and his finger felt foreign in the trigger guard. He gritted his teeth, brought the gun up, sighting along the barrel as he'd been taught, shifting his stance to balance himself, and changed to a two-handed grip. Everything was going to be okay… and then the target morphed into the figure of a young boy, not older than fifteen, and Blair's hands began to shake. The weapon slipped from his grip, dropping to the ground with a crash that echoed despite the ear protection he wore.

Mortified, he took a step back and looked around. Other cadets were focused on their own targets and Blair hoped no one had noticed, but a voice behind him told him otherwise.

"Problem, Cadet?"

Blair turned to face the instructor, Sergeant Wilson, aware he was blushing. "No, sir. I just didn't… I didn't realize how heavy it was -"

The sergeant frowned. "It was my belief you'd handled weapons before."

"I have, sir, just -"

Wilson cut him off, pointing over his shoulder with a thumb. "Take a break. Don't want a booth going to waste while you try to get up the nerve to shoot at a piece of paper."

Blair opened his mouth to argue, but seeing the set look on the other man's face, backed down. "Yes, sir." He bent and picked up the gun, checked the clip and safety and placed it back on the bench. He pushed past the instructor, keeping his head down, aware that the man's comments had drawn everyone's attention to him.

"Sandburg?" He turned back at Wilson's call. "I'm aware you've got a detective's badge waiting for you back in Cascade. Maybe before you put it in your pocket, you should make sure you're cut out for the job."

"Sir -"

Wilson waved his protest away. "Take a seat, Sandburg. I'll give you another shot at it when you've had a chance to compose yourself." That comment brought a snigger from a few of the other cadets but Wilson's gimlet glare silenced them quickly. Sighing, Blair slumped onto the bench beside his dorm mate, Brian Carrick.

"Bad luck, Sandburg," Carrick said but there was no sarcasm in his voice. Carrick had been one of several cadets who either didn't know Blair's history or didn't care. After learning that Blair was acing all of his written tests, the young cadet had asked if Blair would tutor him a little to keep his grades up. "I've never been one for school work," he'd confided to Blair a few days before. "My dad's a cop, so is my brother. It's a family tradition."

Blair had looked at him with interest. "You don't want to be a cop? You shouldn't feel pressured to make that choice." He flushed, realizing that was exactly what he had done.

Brian shook his head. "Don't get me wrong, man. It's all I've ever wanted to do. Be like my dad and my big brother. I just don't want to let them down."

Blair had nodded solemnly. "I know how that feels." Now he turned to his companion and smiled. "It'll be cool, man. Just need to get used to holding a gun again."

"You've done this before?" Brian asked, then he clicked his fingers. "Oh, right, I overheard a few of the guys saying you were an observer with Cascade PD for a while."

Blair looked away and stared at the cadet currently taking his place in the booth. "I'd rather not talk about it, if that's okay."

Brian held up his hands. "That's fine. I tend to keep my distance from them anyway. Too macho for me."

"Sandburg, Carrick, Davis. You're up." Wilson's voice cut off further conversation. Taking a deep breath, Blair stood and smiled at Brian. "If I screw up this time, maybe you can give me a few pointers after lectures are over."

"Sure, man, no problem," Brian said. "I've been shooting half my life."

Blair swapped places with the cadet in the booth and ran through the required safety checks before picking up his weapon. Lifting it, he set his stance and grip and drew in a deep breath then let it out slowly. Carefully he sighted along the barrel…

"All right, everyone, heads up," Simon bellowed, walking out of his office. Megan followed a few steps behind, looking sad but composed. Jim, who had been in conversation with Henri at his desk, looked up.

"What's up, Captain?" he asked.

"I guess this won't really affect anyone except you, Jim. Connor needs to take some time off, head home… at least for a while."

"Yes, sir, I figured that." Jim stood and looked at Megan. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thank you, Jim. Could you let Sandy know for me? I still haven't decided… Tell him I'll be in touch though, okay?"

"Sure." Jim turned his attention back to Simon. "It's only for a few more days, sir, I'll be fine on my own."

Simon shook his head vehemently. "There is no way I'm facing the wrath of Sandburg if he gets wind of that little scheme," he said.

"I don't need a babysitter, sir," Jim growled, stepping closer to Simon to give him the full effect of his laser-like glare. "I'll be fine."

"No." The word was spoken quietly, but the tone implied there would be no further discussion. Simon looked around. "Joel, you mind riding with Jim for a few days?"

Joel smiled easily. "If Jim has no objections."

Jim wiped a hand over his face. "That's fine, Joel, and it's not you, believe me."

Joel waved away Jim's apology with one big hand. "It's fine. You working on anything right now? Actually, I've got something here I could use your opinion on."

"I'm all yours."

"Jim?" Simon leaned forward enough to keep his next words low. Chances were, pretty much everyone in Major Crime knew that Sandburg's dissertation hadn't been a lie, but it paid to be careful. "Turn your hearing down or whatever it is you do," he whispered.

Jim frowned. "Sir?" Then his face cleared as he got the gist of Simon's request. "No blackmail material, huh?" he teased. "Don't want the rest of the guys knowing you're just a pussycat."

Simon gave him a mock glare. "Go see what Joel wants, will you?"

Jim grinned and gave him a snappy salute before making his way over to Joel's desk after giving Megan a final wave and quick but nonetheless genuine kiss on the cheek. She might be as prickly as hell and too damned curious for her own good, but she was a good cop and, when the shit had hit the fan over Blair's dissertation, it was Megan who'd tried to shelter Blair from the worst of Jim's wrath.

Simon turned back to Megan. "Firstly, let me offer condolences for your father's death. I know it had to be hard trying to deal with that from so far away."

"Thank you, Captain," Megan replied.

"Secondly, I know you haven't made a decision yet about your permanent transfer but regardless of what you decide, I want to tell you that you've been a great asset to this department over the past couple of months, despite the fact that you and a certain detective seemed to get off on the wrong foot. The New South Wales Police Department can be justly proud of you. Should you decide to come back, I'd be more than happy to see you back here in Major Crime."

There were definite tears in Connor's eyes now, Jim could see as he scrutinized the scene from the corner of his eye. Simon had told him to turn down his hearing after all, not his sight.

Megan reached out and hugged Simon suddenly, causing him to sputter a little around his cigar and Jim tried without success to hide his smile. "Thank you, Captain," Megan said. "That means a great deal to me." She released Simon and walked to the door, casting a not-so-surreptitious glance in Rafe's direction.

"Detective Rafe," Simon called, waiting until the young man looked up, before continuing, "You seem the only one here with nothing to do. Perhaps you could escort Inspector Connor to the airport."

Rafe was out of his seat in a split second, his blush deepening but a wide smile splitting his face. "Yes, sir! Of course, sir!"

Simon shook his head and waved the couple away. "Get out of here so we can get some work done."

Blair took a deep breath before knocking on the hotel room door. He wasn't sure he should have come but when he'd received the phone message that afternoon had decided it was time to face the music. How much worse could it get, after all? He'd been weathering snide comments and criticism from all quarters for what seemed like forever. The door opened and a stern-looking Eli Stoddard peered out at him. "Blair," he said, holding out a hand. "I'm glad you could make it."

"Professor Stoddard." Blair shook the other man's hand and gave him a small, nervous smile. "I have to admit I was surprised to hear from you. I hadn't expected -"

"Thought I was like the rest of those narrow-minded upstarts at Rainier, hmm?" Stoddard shook his head then motioned Blair inside. "Come in, my boy, come in."

Blair followed his mentor into the large suite and took a seat at Eli's urging. "Coffee?' the professor asked. He waved a hand at the drink cabinet. "Or something stronger perhaps?"

"Coffee will be fine, thank you." Blair wiped his sweaty hands along his pants legs, and waited until the professor had poured the coffee and set the cups on the table beside Blair. "I'm not exactly sure why you wanted to see me."

"I'm in Seattle for a conference," Stoddard said, settling himself into the armchair opposite Blair. "I had wanted to talk to you before I left but when I phoned your apartment, your roommate, Detective Ellison told me you'd already left for the Academy."

Blair nodded and waited.

"I know you didn't falsify your thesis, Blair," the professor said kindly. He held up a hand when Blair opened his mouth to speak. "Hear me out, then we'll talk." He waited until Blair nodded then continued. "When you first settled on your dissertation subject and came to see me for advice, I have to say I fully intended to tell you to shelve it and find something else. I wasn't going to suggest you abandon it entirely; it's an intriguing concept and one you were obviously passionate about. I had my doubts however, of you ever discovering someone with all five enhanced senses. I knew you were an intelligent lad despite your tender years, and I thought once you discovered the only subjects you could uncover were those with only one or two heightened senses that you'd realize it was merely wishful thinking, a romantic notion that these tribal guardians, as Burton called them, truly existed. But you didn't."

He paused then and Blair realized he was waiting for him to speak. "But I didn't find a sentinel," he said as firmly as he could though the quaver in his voice betrayed him. "And when my falsified research got leaked, I knew I'd have to confess to the fraud."

"You can tell that story as often as you like, Blair and I won't believe it. I knew the moment you refused to accompany me to Borneo that you'd found your… What did you call it? Your Holy Grail." He leaned forward and rested his clasped hands on his knees. "Are you sure that what you're doing now is the right thing? Becoming a police officer? Because if you're not, I'm willing to get you the help you need to sue both the University and the press for unauthorized publication of your thesis and unfair dismissal." He smiled grimly. "It would give me great pleasure to see Chancellor Edwards out of a job. She handled the whole thing extremely poorly."

Blair was stricken. He closed his eyes for a moment then opened them and stared unwaveringly at Stoddard. "I can't do that," he said. "None of this can go beyond these walls. I need to protect my subject and I should have realized from the beginning that I was never going to be able to keep his anonymity and retain the validity of my dissertation."

"By subject, I'm assuming you mean Detective Ellison?"

Blair shook his head, aware that his heart was beginning to pound in his chest. "I'm not at liberty to say who it was." He stood. "I think I should go. It… it was good to see you, sir but I can't continue this conversation."

Stoddard stood then as well and reached out to gently clasp Blair's shoulders. "I won't say I'm not disappointed with your decision to abandon everything you've worked for. At least answer this for me before you leave. Are you happy with the choice you made? Leaving what would have been a brilliant anthropological career behind?"

Blair hesitated for a moment. "I don't know. I know I'm doing the right thing, but whether it's the right thing for me?" He shrugged. "Who knows. I guess time will tell. I'm having some problems with the firearms course," he said, surprising himself with the admission. "I've shot a gun before but never really at someone, never when the chips were down, when my partner, my best friend was at risk of dying if I didn't pull the trigger."

Eli smiled. "I know you didn't falsify your thesis," he repeated, "and what you did were the actions of an incredibly brave man. Something that will have repercussions for you for the rest of your life." He shook Blair gently. "Don't let them browbeat you into submission, Blair. You stood up for what you believed was right then, do it now. If you don't believe this is the right path for you, don't sacrifice yourself again. But…" He wagged an admonishing finger. "… You deserve that gold shield. And you obviously care enough for Jim Ellison that you would put your life on the line for him - academic or otherwise. Reading what I have of your dissertation, I believe that is part of your destiny, not only as a police officer but also as partner to your sentinel."

Blair shook his head. "I've just tried to help him control his abilities so they work to his advantage, that's all and I'm still not saying who it is."

Eli grinned. "A guide, then? I've heard the terminology used in many cultures. Now then, it's way past my bedtime and I suspect you need to be up early as well." He held out his hand and took Blair's, shaking it. "Good luck, young man, I'm going to miss you but I have no doubt your innate strength of character and that intelligent brain of yours will be an asset to the police department."

"Thank you, sir. I appreciate you seeing me." Blair squeezed Stoddard's hand then walked to the door and opened it. "Thank you, for believing in me." His steps as he left the hotel were much lighter than when he'd arrived.