THE RIGHT PATH

BY: Lyn

EMAIL: Lyn

ACT ONE:

"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."

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

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.

"Headache?"

"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.

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

"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."

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

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."

"Okay."

"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."

~o0o~

"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."

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

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.

"Megan."

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."

~o0o~

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…

~o0o~

"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."

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

ACT TWO

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."

~o0o~

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."

~o0o~

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."

~o0o~

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."

~o0o~

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."

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

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."

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

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."

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

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?"

~o0o~

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.

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."

END