The Right Path

Written by Lyn
Cover by Patt
Artwork by Patt & Nicci

The rest of the week passed by in a blur of activity: more lectures, practical tests and more of the inevitable firearms training. This week though, he and Jim had been in almost constant contact, as Blair's arrival back in Cascade neared. At the memory of their most recent conversation, Blair frowned. Jim had admitted somewhat reluctantly, under some probing questioning from Blair, that his control on his senses was shaky.

"I don't know what it is, Chief," Jim had said. "Not a spike exactly. It's just that control is so… tenuous that any time I extend my hearing or my sight, I'm on the verge of losing it entirely. I just can't seem to pull back. It's like I'm searching for more than is there."

They'd discussed the problem for more than half an hour, with Blair offering several workable suggestions while silently cursing the whole mess that had landed him here in Seattle instead of being where he should be - home with Jim. Jim had promised to take things easy and use his senses only when it was absolutely necessary before saying goodbye. "I can't wait for you to get home, Chief," Jim had added and Blair was surprised by the tenderness in Jim's voice.

"Me either," Blair had replied, wishing he could say more. Then he'd hung up and counted the hours before he could get back to Cascade. He'd been saddened to hear of Megan's father's death and wished he could have seen her before she left. According to Jim, she still hadn't decided if she'd be returning to the States, though Blair thought a certain dark-haired detective might persuade her to do so.

On Friday afternoon, Blair knocked once more on the Academy commander's office door and waited for the invitation to enter. He tugged nervously on the collar of his dress uniform, wondering how on earth he'd ever get used to wearing it, and hoped he wouldn't have to on too many occasions. He had to admit though, Jim looked damned fine when he was wearing his. The restrictive material over his groin tightened at that and Blair felt his face heat, and sternly told his libido to behave. He certainly didn't want to face the commander with a raging hard-on.

Eventually there was a gruff reply to his knock and he opened the door and walked into the office, remembering to stand at rigid attention in front of the desk and salute. "Cadet Sandburg, sir."

The commander stood and gave Blair an answering salute before picking up a rolled piece of parchment from the desk. "Cadet, so this is where you leave us and head back to Cascade. I have to admit to being impressed with your exam results, despite your rocky start. Sergeant Wilson tells me that you out-shot pretty much everybody on the firing range. Perhaps you should consider a position with the SWAT team here in Seattle."

"No, thank you, sir. I'm happy with my current assignment," Blair replied.

The commander came around the desk and stood in front of Blair, his eyes seeming to stare right through him. "Of course as you didn't do the full cadet course, you're not entitled to graduate with the rest of the group."

"I understand, sir." Blair couldn't help feeling a little disappointed about that. It seemed like one more shove out of the closed fraternity.

"Still…" The commander held out Blair's certificate, waiting for Blair to take it before shaking hands with him.

"Thank you, sir." Blair felt a lump rise in his throat. This was it. He was a cop. He saluted the commander and waited to be dismissed.

"Put your skills to good use, Sandburg. Remember you're on probation for three months, regardless of your immediate promotion to the rank of detective." He wrinkled his nose as though the idea offended him. "I hope after all the special considerations you've been given, you don't throw your opportunity away."

"I don't plan to, sir."

"Very well. Dismissed… good luck."

"Thank you, sir." Blair turned and left the office. By the time he made it into the corridor, his legs were shaking and sweat had broken out on his brow. He forced himself to walk calmly back to his dorm room and sat on the bed, willing himself to settle. He looked at the certificate that lay on the bed beside him, then picked it up and slowly unrolled it. A small smile formed on his lips despite his earlier nervous reaction. "Detective Blair Sandburg," he said softly. Perhaps saying it would make it seem real. He grinned and in a louder voice said, "I'm Detective Sandburg, Detective Ellison's partner."

Jim paused uncertainly at the door to the loft and looked over his shoulder at Simon. "I'm not sure we should be doing this, sir," he said. "I mean, it's Sandburg's first night back and -"

"Want to have him all to yourself?" Simon teased.

Jim glared back at Simon, then wisely chose to say nothing. He fished his keys from his pocket and inserted the correct one in the lock, saying over his shoulder, "He didn't mention his scores when he phoned earlier. I just don't want him embarrassed in front of everybody."

Simon sighed. "This was your idea, Jim."

"I know," Jim replied, " but I thought maybe on Monday -"

"We're here now. He deserves this, Jim. After all the shit he's taken from all quarters, he needs to know getting this badge is not some sort of consolation prize."

"Open the door, Jim," Henri complained from behind Simon. "I'm gonna sit right down and eat this food here in the hallway if you don't get a move on."

"Yeah, yeah. All right." Jim turned the key and opened the front door… and smiled. Blair was curled up on the sofa, a book listing from one hand, his glasses dangling from the other. Jim shook his head. Some things never changed, and the measure of relief he felt at that thought, not to mention the sheer pleasure that flooded him, knowing Blair was finally back for good, took him aback for a moment. Turning, he held a hand up to his lips to ask for silence then walked over to his oblivious, sleeping partner. "Sandburg? Blair? Up and at 'em, Chief."

Blair shifted on the sofa, the book slipping from his hand to the floor with a muffled thump. He opened his eyes and looked up; his face held an endearing expression of woozy confusion. "Huh?" Then he smiled. "Jim! Oh, man, I'm so glad to see you! I thought you might be working late and I was gonna call you but I thought you might be busy -"

"Take a breath, Chief," Jim ordered.

Blair obligingly did so then reached out and grasped Jim's hand. "I missed you so much."

Jim's eyes widened at the unadulterated pleasure in Blair's voice. "I don't think you're quite with us yet, Chief." He indicated the group standing in the doorway. "We have visitors."

Blair yanked his hand back quickly as though he'd been burned, his eyes going wide. He sat up and finally took in the group standing behind Jim. "Oh! Hi, guys. I… I missed you all."

"Hey, Hairboy!" Henri carried an armful of grocery bags to the kitchen, followed by Rafe with a case of beer.

"H, Rafe. Good to see you guys. Hey, Joel, Simon."

"Hi, Blair." Joel gave Blair a kindly smile and walked over to sit in the armchair across from Blair. "So how did the Academy go?"

Blair tucked his hair behind his ears and smiled. "Not bad. Pretty good actually." He looked up at Jim. "Did you have a poker night planned or something?"

"No, he didn't," Simon said. "Welcome back, Sandburg. I had a phone call from Commander Jensen and -"

"Simon - sir, if it's about arguing with Sergeant Martinez, I was just pointing out that -"

"Sandburg! Can it!" Simon's voice was harsher than he intended and he sighed. "Just… give me a minute."

Blair nodded. "Sorry."

"I had a call from Commander Jensen. Seems he was pretty impressed with you -"

"He didn't exactly show it," Blair muttered darkly but snapped his mouth shut at another glare from Simon.

"He tells me you aced your tests and topped the class in marksmanship."

"All right. Way to go, Hairboy," Henri crowed.

"Maybe you'll be able to get the trophy away from Ellison," Rafe added, slapping Blair on the back. "God knows, no one else has been able to."

Blair held up his hands as though to ward the thought away. "No, thanks, man. If I never have to shoot a gun again, I'll be happy."

"You'll still have to carry one," Jim reminded him.

"I know, Jim. I just don't want to have to use it."

"As I was saying, despite your high scores, the powers that be decided it wasn't necessary for you to graduate with the rest of the class or some such bull, so I thought we could do that now."

Blair blinked and stared up at Simon. "Huh?"

Jim rolled his eyes and pulled Blair to his feet, laughing aloud when the afghan dropped away to reveal Blair was dressed only in a tee shirt and boxers. "Not exactly dress blues," he said.

"Hey!" Blair picked up the afghan and held it up against him in a bid for a small amount of modesty. "I wasn't expecting company."

"It's fine, Sandburg." Simon cleared his throat then pulled a slim wallet from his pocket. "Congratulations, Detective Sandburg. I know you'll be an asset to Major Crime." He held out the wallet, smiling when Blair took it and opened it up, revealing the gold badge within.

Again, Blair felt that damn lump in his throat threaten to choke him. He looked up at Simon, aware of the tears stinging his eyes. "Thank you," he said shakily. "This means an awful lot to me. I'll try not to let you down." His eyes tracked to Jim as he said the last words.

"Just remember you're on probation for three months, so keep your nose clean," Simon said, "and please, try not to argue with every cop you work with."

Jim glanced over at Simon. "What do you mean, sir? Blair will be partnering me."

Simon nodded. "Down, Jim. He'll be your partner, yes but Homicide has already expressed an interest in loaning Sandburg to take a look at a case or two. They think his background in anthropology might be an asset."

"Well, it's true that these days, an awful lot of profilers have a background in Forensic Anthropology," Blair said.

"Already checking out greener pastures?" Joel said.

"No, just… looking at what's out there now I've taken a step over the thin blue line." Blair grinned.

"All right, Detective," Simon interrupted. "Now how about you go get your superior officer a beer?"

"Yes, sir!" Blair saluted Simon jauntily, accepted handshakes and hearty slapping on the back before making his way into the kitchen with Jim. "Thank you," he said softly as he handed a couple of beers to his partner.

Jim looked quizzically at him. "What for?"

Blair gestured toward the living room with his head. "For this. I know it was your idea."

"You deserve it," Jim replied. "You always did."

Photo Manip by Patt Rose

So this was it. D-Day. Blair pulled his hair back into a ponytail and secured it with a leather tie then gave his reflection in the bathroom mirror careful scrutiny. He didn't look any different than he had two weeks ago when he'd left for the Academy. His face was a little pale, accentuating the dark circles under his eyes that spoke of too little sleep the night before, and there was a small nick on his chin when his hand had shaken a little while he was shaving. He'd opted for dressing down today. No more brightly colored vests or battered jeans and sneakers. Blair was determined to keep a low profile from here on. He wasn't naive enough to think that now he was Jim's partner, any animosity toward him was simply going to dissipate. If anything, he was certain there'd be more than a few cops with their sights set on joining the Major Crime unit who'd be more than a little pissed off that Blair had made it so easily.

Easily. He snorted in disgust as he turned away from the mirror and headed out to the kitchen where Jim was putting the finishing touches to a breakfast Blair was sure he wouldn't be able to eat. If only those cops knew just what it had cost both of them to come to this.

"Good, you're on time," Jim greeted him as Blair slid into a chair and stared distastefully at the plate of eggs in front of him. His stomach churned uncomfortably and he pushed the plate away and reached for a slice of toast.

"You should eat," Jim chided him. "If we get busy today, you never know when you'll get a chance to get lunch or even dinner, for that matter."

"I know!" Blair snapped and then was immediately contrite. "Sorry," he said. "I've got a few butterflies."

"To be expected," Jim said as he tucked into his own large breakfast. "You know the routine anyway. You've been doing the cop thing for a few years now, just without the benefit of a badge."

"Yeah…" Blair took a sip of his coffee to ease the passage of the toast that threatened to lodge in his throat. "So," he began with what he hoped was a casual curiosity, "has anyone said anything? You know about me coming back?"

Jim shrugged and shoveled the last of his eggs into his mouth. "Not really." He swallowed, took a sip of his coffee then suddenly leaned forward, pinning Blair with an earnest look. "There's bound to be some comments. Just don't let it get to you. Concentrate on the job and you'll be fine… and if anyone gives you a hard time, you let me know. Got it?"

"I can take care of myself," Blair protested but Jim waved the words away like so much dust.

"You got it?" he reiterated, his stony glare accepting no compromise.

Blair nodded. "I got it."

"Okay." Jim nodded, seemingly appeased and stood. He made his way to the coat hooks then turned. "Let's not piss Simon off on your first day, partner. Get the lead out."

"Oh, right." Blair chewed the last of his toast mechanically, automatically catching his jacket and scarf as Jim tossed them to him. His shoulder holster rubbed uncomfortably under his arm and his gun felt as though it was dragging him down until Jim reached out and adjusted both until Blair was comfortable with the positioning.

"You'll get used to it," Jim said, giving Blair shoulder a squeeze, and was it Blair's imagination or his sudden need for reassurance that made it seem as though Jim's hand lingered for just a moment longer than was necessary? "Okay, you're set," Jim continued. "Let's go, Chief."

Blair had to admit he was surprised to make his way up to the bullpen with scarcely a glance in his direction and when he walked into Major Crime, there seemed to be a studied air of casualness pervading. Henri looked up and gave him a cheery wave and a "Hey there, Hairboy" while Rafe merely grinned and bent his head to the report currently absorbing his attention. They had barely hung up their jackets when Simon called them into his office.

The captain waited until both men were settled in seats in front of the desk before beginning. "Joel called in sick this morning. He's got the flu, so I'm going to ask you two to work on his cases until he comes back. Jim, did you and Joel get any further on that drug pipeline from last week?"

Jim shook his head. "We're pretty sure it's connected to the drug bust Connor and I helped Narcotics on the week before, but everyone's been pretty close-mouthed. I couldn't locate Sneaks and Joel said he wanted to talk to one of his snitches. The guy gave him some good tips on a serial bomber a couple of years back and Joel was able to earn his trust. Last I heard though, the guy had gone to ground."

"Speaking of Megan," Blair cut in, "has anyone heard from her?"

Simon gave Blair a stern glance at the interruption then sighed as though accepting the fact that having Blair as a detective would not curb the young man's natural tendency for chatter. "She phoned me last night. She needs another week or two to get the details sorted, then she'll be back to resume her position here in Major Crime."

"Cool!" Blair exclaimed, nodding enthusiastically. "Any idea who she'll be partnering?"

"I make the assignments around here, Sandburg," Simon growled but Blair could see his heart wasn't in it. "I'll make that decision when she gets back. Now, if you don't mind, can we get back to the case? Make this drug ring your number one priority, Jim. I want to nail the rest of these bastards before we have another Golden incident on our hands."

Blair winced at the mention of the drug that had almost killed him, and blinded Jim a few years before. Some things you never forgot and that experience had been right up there with Lash and getting shot and…

"You with us, Chief? Let's go."

Blair blinked and looked up. Jim was waiting expectantly at the door, a small frown on his face. Blair gave his partner a smile and stood. "Ready." He turned to leave but Simon summoned him back.

"Welcome aboard, Sandburg," he said gruffly.

Blair smiled. "Thanks, sir. It's good to be here."

Jim watched Blair, who was leaning over Rafe's shoulder while fixing some sort of computer program for the other detective, and didn't attempt to hold back his smile of satisfaction. Having Blair back, working together side by side, appeared to have caused whatever had seemed so off-kilter with their relationship to right itself, and Jim felt as though the weight that had bowed him down in the weeks leading up to Blair's press conference had suddenly disappeared.

Blair straightened at that moment and their eyes met, locking for a lingering moment on each other. Blair looked animated again, Jim thought. The emptiness and sorrow that had leached the brilliant blue from his eyes was gone, replaced by a shining excitement and fervor. Blair smiled and Jim's chest felt suddenly tight, his heart beating a rapid tattoo in his chest. He forced himself to smile back, feeling the strange tension that had grasped him momentarily, dissipate, replaced by a warm sensation of wellbeing and contentment. He motioned his partner over. "If you've finished the repair work, Chief, we've got another suspect to interview."

"All yours, man," Blair replied, grabbing both their jackets off the hooks behind the desk and Jim found himself wishing that was true.

Draping a companionable arm across Blair's shoulders, Jim led the way to the elevator. "Think you can handle the interview, Sandburg?" he asked.

Blair nodded enthusiastically. "Sure, Jim, that'd be great."

The remainder of the day had been uneventful. Their 'suspect' turned out to be a terrified sixteen-year-old girl, who had been ordered to courier the doctored ecstasy pills to another dealer to prove her loyalty to her pimp. She'd only been on the streets for a month.

Blair had handled the interview with assurance and gentleness, coaxing the girl into giving them a good description of the dealer and her pimp. Jim sat near the door, letting Blair's familiar voice, deep, resonant and calming, flow over him, almost drifting away on the soothing tones of his partner's voice. Blair had nudged him back to the present, his eyes twinkling with barely restrained amusement, as a female uniformed officer led the sobbing girl from the room.

"You are just so easy, man," Blair said when they were in the elevator.

Jim gave him a mock-affronted look. "What that's supposed to mean, Chief?"

"If I wanted to, I could have you zoning at the drop of a hat."

"Yeah, well…" Jim drew Blair into a wrestling hold, his arms tightening around Blair's chest as the smaller man struggled to get away. "Your job is to pull me out of zones, Darwin, not put me in them."

Blair chuckled. "Just remember, man, you piss me off and it's zone time for you." He stopped struggling suddenly but Jim kept his hold on him, relishing the nearness, allowing his senses to open up and take in the familiar scent of his guide. Blair pushed against his restraining arms. "Uh, Jim, you want to let go of me, man? If someone gets on…" His words trailed off and he brought up a hand to cup Jim's cheek, patting gently. "Come on, Jim, snap out of it."

Jim blinked slowly a couple of times, then grinned. "Sorry, Sandburg," he said, lying smoothly, "just yanking your chain." He stepped out when the elevator doors opened, followed by Blair. "So," he said as he unlocked the car and climbed in, "takeout tonight or…?"

"I'll cook," Blair offered enthusiastically as Jim had hoped he would. He'd missed Blair's culinary skills in the kitchen, living mostly on Wonderburger for the past two weeks, with the occasional stir-fry from the local Chinese place thrown in. "I'm sick of Academy food." Blair appeared to think for a moment. "Lasagna, that spinach and cheese one you liked, garlic bread… No! Garlic and herb bread, a salad, maybe a bottle of wine."

"No wine, Chief. I want to be clear-headed if Narcotics gets anything on these dealers tonight."

"Okay." Blair was unfazed. "We need to stop at the market on the way home. What exactly did you live on while I was gone?"

Jim shrugged and steered the car out onto the street, enjoying the familiar teasing banter. "The usual. Trust me, nothing in those Tupperware containers you left in the fridge was worth resurrecting."

Blair slapped his forehead. "Damn, I forgot about those. I meant to empty them before I left. Sorry, Jim."

"No biggie," Jim replied, "you can make up for it tonight by cooking dinner and doing the dishes." He grinned when he caught Blair's rude hand signal out the corner of his eye. It was good to have things back to normal.

Blair had just started on the dirty dishes when the phone rang. Jim, sprawled on the sofa, idly channel-surfing, picked up the receiver and identified himself.

"Jim, it's Simon. Joel got a break from his snitch."

"That's great." Jim gave Blair a thumbs-up when the other man wandered out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel.

"Yeah, the guy says there's a big buy of the product going down some time in the next couple of days, probably at a warehouse on Fifth. It used to be an old box factory."

"I know the place," Jim affirmed. "But, hang on, Simon, probably?"

"Yeah, well, Joel says the guy was a little strung out but he's pretty certain. Look, I sent Joel home again after he reported in. He looked lousy. I want you and Sandburg to get out to this warehouse and sit on it till morning. I'll have some uniforms check out the area nearby, just in case this guy got it wrong. Narcotics guys will spell you and Sandburg in the morning. This flu has everybody short on manpower."

"I understand, sir," Jim replied. He motioned for Blair to collect their jackets. "Hopefully we'll get these guys tonight." Hanging up the phone, Jim headed for the lockbox to collect his and Blair's weapons.

"What's happening, man?" Blair asked. He was bundled into his usual layers of clothing to ward off the chill of the night, and held Jim's jacket out to him.

"Stakeout," Jim said, handing Blair his gun and holster.

"Oh." Blair rolled his eyes. "Joy."

One part of his previous life hadn't changed, Blair decided as he squinted through the windshield, trying to see past the rain that coated it. Stakeouts were still as boring as ever. Jim had done a sensory sweep of the warehouse when they'd first arrived and declared the place to be deserted so far. They settled in for a long cold night of boredom. They'd parked far enough away to be unobtrusive to anyone entering or leaving the warehouse or the street immediately out front and, in deference to the possibility of Jim's sight and hearing being brought into doubt by a defense attorney, as had been the case in the Tommy Juno fiasco, stored on the back seat was a parabolic mic, binoculars and a few other items of monitoring equipment.

"You ready to do this again, Chief?" Jim asked.

Blair sat back on the seat and nodded, trying to stifle a yawn. "Ready when you are." He reached out a hand and rested it on Jim's forearm, squeezing to elicit just enough pressure to ground the sentinel. "Don't go so far this time, Jim," he warned. "Don't try to listen for something that's not there."

"Yeah, I know." Jim turned toward Blair, his face solemn. "You know back at the hospital when Simon and Megan got shot, I meant what I said about you being a great cop, and about being a great friend, don't you?"

Blair frowned, wondering where this was leading. Was Jim building him up to take another disappointment? Was there a but in there somewhere? "I know that, Jim."

Jim nodded. "Good. I… uh… I wanted to say, that as a friend, I couldn't have wished for better. I honestly don't know what I would have done if you'd left."

"Not that you didn't try," Blair replied, then hurried on to explain himself. "What I meant was, it seems whenever you feel threatened by anything, I'm the one you push away, the one who's trying to help you."

"Well, I can't promise it'll never happen again, but I want you to know I'll do my best to talk things through with you, try to work things out together."

"That's good, man." So no rebuttal here, he thought, but certainly not the guarantee of trust he had hoped for either. Blair resumed his position and waited for Jim to focus on their target.

Bang! Bang!

Blair stiffened at the sound of gunshots that rang out from the direction of the warehouse. Jim was already reacting, opening his door and reaching for his weapon.

"Jim?" Blair moved to do the same.

"Shots fired inside the warehouse," Jim said. "Not at us." He indicated the radio. "Call for backup, Chief then stay -"

"No!" Blair shook his head vehemently. "I'm your partner now, remember? Your backup."

Jim sighed. "Call it in," he reiterated. "Then follow me down. Watch yourself."

Blair reached for the mic as he watched Jim hurry down the road toward the warehouse. "This is One- David - Twenty one requesting backup at Wellers' Box Factory on Fifth Street." Completing his call and with his heart in his throat, he slid out of the SUV and trotted up the road.

Jim slowed when he reached the gates leading to the warehouse. There was no sign of activity out front and no vehicles to be seen, which meant the dealers had probably entered via a back entrance. He opened up his hearing, targeting first the heartbeats within the warehouse - four people - then dialed up his sight until the darkness became day. Keeping to the shadows along the edge of the fence, he crept forward until he was able to skirt the perimeter of the building and stopped outside the door. He could hear voices within; one sounded reed thin and frightened. Another, surly, snarled at the first to shut up. Jim could smell the chemical tang of drugs and the unmistakable smell of blood.

Opening the door, Jim slipped inside, relieved when there was no telltale creak from the hinges. He stiffened at the sensation of someone behind him, relaxing when he felt a solid hand come to rest against his back. Blair.

Across the expanse of floor, Jim could see three men gathered around a fourth, dark-skinned and young, dressed in baggy pants and an oversized shirt, who was cowering up against the wall. On the floor was a briefcase, opened to show its contents of bank notes and next to it were several bags of pills. Just a few feet from where Jim stood, lay the body of a fifth man, blood seeping from beneath it and pooling on the floor.

The frightened man spoke again. "Why… why did you shoot him? We brought the money, man."

The rough voice Jim had heard earlier responded. "Let's just say we've decided to do business elsewhere." He brought his gun up to bear on the trembling man in front of him. "No witnesses."

Raising his own weapon, Jim stepped forward and Blair smoothly went with him, shifting to Jim's side and aiming his own Sig-Sauer at the group. "Cascade PD," Jim announced loudly. "Put down your weapons."

The three men spun as one, all three bringing their weapons to bear on the Jim and Blair. Jim saw the tightening of the leader's finger in the trigger guard and fired immediately, diving at the same time to one side and taking Blair with him. Jim heard the muffled "oomph" as Blair hit the ground hard and rolled, coming up on one knee, his weapon held on the perps. Only Jim could have seen the slight tremor in Blair's hands. Doing good, Chief, he thought to himself proudly. Jim's bullet had found its target in the man's hand, who yelped as his hand exploded into a bloody mess and his weapon flew from his grasp to skitter across the floor.

"Drop your weapons," Jim ordered again.

This time, the remaining two men did as they were asked, their guns clattering to the floor. Jim and Blair stepped forward and Jim motioned to the trembling man to stay where he was. In the distance Jim could hear sirens approaching. "Turn around and face the wall," Jim said, "put your hands on your heads."

Once all three men were in the desired position, Jim holstered his weapon. "Keep an eye on them, Sandburg," he said.

"I got 'em," Blair replied. He looked pale in the dim light of the warehouse, Jim thought but his stance and grip on his weapon were steady enough.

Jim approached the men and proceeded to pat them down to search for concealed weapons. From the corner of his eye, he caught some kind of movement but before he could react, his world exploded into a blinding, pulsing kaleidoscope of pain. Waves of agony beat him down to his knees and through the chaos of his overwhelmed senses, he heard Blair scream his name. Then there was another shockwave of pain as a boom exploded against his eardrums. He tried to stagger up, squinting in an attempt to open his watering eyes against the fiery red that blinded him. There was a cacophony of sound surrounding him now and he felt his legs give out. Strong arms caught him and lowered him to the floor and he curled himself into a ball to shelter himself from further sensory onslaught. A voice tickled at the periphery of his consciousness and he struggled to hear it more clearly, recognizing the voice of his guide.

"Come on, Jim, bring the dials down, man. You're at eight. Find the dials, bring it down to six… five… four… three…." A hand rhythmically patted his shoulder with each count and a second hand stroked his cheek, soothing and grounding him. Slowly he managed to inch the dials down until all he felt was an echo of the pain that had assaulted him. "What… happened," he managed to croak out.

"Pepper spray. With your senses wide open, it took you out," Blair whispered close to his ear. "The nervy guy must have had it on him. When you went to search him, he spun around with it in his hand and then pulled a backup weapon. Luckily Simon was right outside the door."

There was something off about Blair's voice. Jim held out a hand and Blair helped get him into a sitting position. He rubbed at his eyes, grumbling when Blair captured his hand and forced it onto his lap. "You'll only make it worse," his guide lectured. "The paramedics are on the way. They'll flush them out."

Jim's eyes stung and a headache of migraine proportions was beginning to pound at his temples. "You okay?" he asked Blair.

"Yeah." There was a tremble in Blair's voice and Jim forced his eyes to focus properly before looking up at his partner. If he'd thought Blair was pale before, he was wrong. The young detective was ghost-white and a faint sheen of sweat coated his face. He looked ready to throw up as he sank down to sit on his butt next to Jim. "Blair? You okay?" Jim's hands reached out of their volition to begin searching for unseen wounds on Blair's body.

Blair shook his head and his gaze drifted past Jim to the second body that lay slumped against the far wall. "I'm not hurt. He pulled a gun, aimed it right at you. I… I shot him."

Photo Manip by Patt Rose

Jim gratefully accepted the wet compress from the paramedic and held it against his eyes. His headache was beginning to ease and his sight was returning to normal though he knew it would be a day or so before the pain was gone. Blair sat beside him on the tailgate of the ambulance, hunched in on himself, his arms wrapped around his chest as he silently watched Simon direct the crime scene traffic through the warehouse, averting his eyes from the activity when a shroud-covered body was wheeled from the building.

Jim dropped the compress just as a dark-colored sedan pulled up adjacent to the ambulance and Simon trotted over to join the two men. "Shit," Jim and Simon said in tandem. "IA."

"They didn't waste anytime," Jim added.

"Just doing their job," Simon replied.

Blair looked quizzically at Jim. "IA? Internal Affairs, right?"

"Yep. Don't worry, Chief." Jim placed a reassuring hand on Blair's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "Just routine."

A man and a woman, both dressed in dark suits, approached them. Jim recognized the woman as Sheila Irwin who had questioned him over the case involving his dead partner, Jack Pendergrast and felt some relief. Sheila was a tough cop but fair. "Captain Banks, Detectives," she greeted, then turned her attention to Blair. "Detective Sandburg, I'm -"

"Sheila Irwin, I know," Blair replied tiredly. "I remember you."

The detective nodded. "We'll need you to come back to the station and give us a statement about what occurred here tonight. Your weapon -"

"Is in the custody of CSI," Simon interjected. "As is Detective Ellison's."

Irwin nodded. "Fair enough. I'll get them to CC us on their findings."

Blair stood, his weariness unmistakable in his stance. "Okay if I go now, sir?" he asked Simon.

"No problem, Sandburg. I'll check in with you soon as we're done here."

Jim stood too. "I'll come with you, Chief." He looked meaningfully at Simon. "That's if we're done here, sir?"

"Good idea," Simon replied. "IA can take your statement at the same time."

"We'll follow you in," Jim said as the detectives turned to escort them to the car. "We know the way."

Irwin considered that for a moment then nodded.

Blair rested his head in his hands and sighed. He was beyond exhausted. They'd been at the question and answer thing for over an hour now and he'd told the same story, drawn the same diagram of everyone's position in the warehouse several times over. All he wanted to do was check on Jim, make sure he really was as okay as the paramedics had said and go home. Sheila Irwin had taken Jim into a second office to take his statement and Blair had the feeling his partner was getting it easier than he was with this arrogant SOB who couldn't seem to understand plain English.

He supposed that was reasonable. He'd just killed a man and the memory of it, he knew, would stay with him forever. The technicolor image of blood erupting from the man's chest, the seemingly slow motion jerk of his body, the wide, staring dead eyes, could never be erased any more than his guilt at having ended another man's life in order to save his partner. He'd been so wrong to think he could do this.

"Okay, Detective, one more time, just to get everything straight."

Blair sat up and scrubbed at his face. "We already got it straight the first three times," he said, anger beginning to color his words. "I told you those guys were busted in the middle of doing a drug deal double cross. Detective Ellison and I got in there after they'd already shot one man dead. While Detective Ellison prepared to search the suspects, one of them sprayed him in the face with pepper spray. My partner went down and the perp pulled a weapon, aiming it at Detective Ellison. I fired." He stopped to take a breath and gave the IA cop a challenging glare. "You got it straight this time?"

Detective Martin shrugged. "I've been on the force fifteen years and never had to shoot someone."

"Yeah, well, I hardly think that'd be necessary too often in your department," Blair snapped back.

The other cop loomed over Blair and Blair tensed himself for the blow he was certain was about to land, but at that moment, the door opened and Sheila Irwin walked in. "See you a minute?" she asked.

The two conferred quietly in the corner for a moment before Sheila left without a backward glance at Blair. "All right, Sandburg," Martin said. "I think we've got what we need for now. You're on desk duty pending the final outcome of the report and the CSI report on your weapon. You're free to go."

Blair stood, every muscle seeming to protest the movement. "Thank you," he said. Walking to the door, he opened it, relieved to see Jim standing in the corridor. "Hey, Chief." Jim gave him a warm smile. "Let's go home, huh?"

The awful reality of the situation came crashing down on Blair the moment Jim locked the front door behind them. All the way home, the scene had replayed itself over and over in his mind's eye in slow motion. The perp, Harley Wood, whirling, and Blair catching a glimpse of something in his hand before Jim staggered back with a choked off scream, clawing at his eyes. The canister was dropped and Wood bent, whipping something from his boot and aiming it at Jim as he writhed on the floor in agony. There had been no time to think. With a scream of rage or terror, probably a combination of the two, Blair had fired and Wood had flown back to slam into the wall behind him, his chest erupting in an explosion of red. Blair could still smell the nauseous aroma of blood mixed with the pepper spray, and he'd thought for one stomach-churning moment that he was going to throw up in the truck.

He was aware of Jim watching him and he shambled over to sit on the couch, pulling the afghan from the back and wrapping it about his shoulders. He watched dispiritedly while Jim lit the fire then went into the kitchen to fill the kettle with water and set it on the stovetop. He closed his eyes and drifted in the normalcy of the moment, wishing he could just go to bed and wake up to find it had all just been a horrible nightmare.

Something touched his shoulder and he looked up to see Jim standing over him, a steaming mug held in one hand. "Here," Jim said. "Tea, might help you sleep."

"Don't know if I want to," Blair replied. "I keep seeing -"

Jim sat down beside him and reached up to pat his shoulder again. "It'll get better," he said. "You did the right thing."

Blair shook his head. "I killed a man."

"Who was about to kill your partner," Jim said forcefully. "Stop beating yourself up over this, Blair. You need to -"

"No!" Blair interjected. "Don't tell me to check my humanity at the door, Jim. I'm not you, I'm not like you." He stood and strode over to the balcony doors, staring out at the lightening sky, wiping angrily at his suddenly wet cheeks. Oh God, now he was going to humiliate himself totally by bawling like a baby. In the reflection of the glass door, he watched Jim approach him. Jim placed his hands on Blair's shoulders and turned Blair to face him.

"That's not what I was going to say. I don't ever want you to do that. It's an intrinsic part of who you are. It's what makes us a good partnership. You have your own strengths -"

"And weaknesses," Blair whispered.

Jim suddenly pulled Blair into a rough embrace. "You're not weak," he said harshly. "After everything you've gone through; everything I've put you through."

"Don't," Blair said. It felt so natural, so comforting to rest his forehead against Jim's solid chest and then he felt Jim's lips touch the top of his head. He looked up, his heart suddenly pounding. "Jim?"

"Thank you," Jim said, "for saving my life tonight; for saving my life four years ago," and then he was leaning in to place a soft kiss on Blair's lips.

Oh God. Blair pushed away, taking a step back, needing to put some distance between them, because he wanted this so badly but he couldn't… they couldn't. "Jim?" he said again.

"I love you, Blair. God help me, I love you more than life itself and I can't keep pretending anymore. Can't keep denying how I feel or what I want, need." Jim's voice was raw with emotion and Blair could see the glint of unshed tears in his eyes. "After tonight -" He broke off, shook his head and took a step toward Blair, closing the space between them, robbing Blair of the air he needed to breathe, of the space he needed to think. Jim reached up and cupped Blair's face in his hand, his thumb stroking a tantalizing caress over Blair's lips. He leaned forward until their lips touched, his hand shifting to cup the back of Blair's head, pulling him closer.

Photo Manip by Nicci

Blair reacted immediately, the reality of what this meant fueling his fear. He pulled out of Jim's embrace, not caring when a few strands of his hair caught between Jim's fingers and pulled out of his scalp. "No," he said hoarsely, shaking his head vehemently. "We can't… I can't…"

Jim frowned. "You feel the same way," he said. "I know you do. Don't ask me how I know, I just do."

Blair shook his head again. "I'm sorry, I can't." With that, he ducked around Jim and fled to the safety of his bedroom, slamming the door shut and locking it.

Jim stood flat-footed for a moment, then strode decisively over to Blair's room. He tapped at the door, then repeated the action a little more forcefully when there was no reply. "Blair? Come on, Chief. Open the door."

He heard Blair shifting around and there was the sound of something soft hitting the wall. One of Blair's precious cushions perhaps? "There's nothing to talk about, Jim." Blair sounded exhausted and defeated. "I don't know what you think you felt… but you were wrong. Just… go to bed, okay?"

Jim rested his head against the door and took a shaky breath. "Okay. You get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning, all right?"

"Night, Jim."

The Sentinel Slash Movies of the Month - The Right Path - Written by Lyn - Cover by Patt - All artwork by Patt except Jim Kissing Blair by Nicci - Web design by Max D. - Thin Blue Line Productions (c) 2005