THE REPLACEMENT GUIDE

By: Lyn

FEEDBACK TO: townsend297@gmail.com

DISCLAIMER: The characters of The Sentinel are the property of Petfly and Paramount. This fanfic was written for my own and others’ enjoyment. No money has been paid and no copyright infringement is intended.

CATEGORY: Drama.

RATING: N/C-17

PAIRINGS: J/B.

WARNINGS: m/m sex, violence, language.

AUTHOR’S NOTES: Adapted from an idea by Patt posted on The Plot Bunny 101 website.

http://plotbunny101.tvheaven.com

For Patt with thanks – for everything.

Many, many thanks to Wolf once more for the beta.

Set post TsbyBS.

"The Replacement Guide."

Blair Sandburg walked into the Major Crime bullpen and looked around in surprise. The room was deserted and silent, save for the faint hum of idling computers. He walked slowly over to his desk and slung his backpack into its normal spot under his chair and sat down. Muffled laughter from the captain’s office clued him in to the whereabouts of the rest of the personnel and he wondered for a brief panic-stricken moment if he’d forgotten a scheduled meeting. As he sat feeling vaguely embarrassed and wondering if he should just barge in, the office door opened and his colleagues came spilling out into the bullpen.

Blair smiled as Joel, Rafe and Henri gave him a friendly wave of acknowledgement and went about their business. Simon appeared at the office doorway, hands clasped firmly on the shoulders of two men, one was Blair’s partner, Detective Jim Ellison, the other a tall, well-built, handsome young man. Simon waved to Blair and laughed at something the stranger said. Then, shaking his head, he pulled a cigar from his pocket and went back to his office. Blair stood as Jim steered the stranger toward him.

"Chief, I want you to meet the newest addition to Major Crime. This is Detective Zac Taylor. Zac, this is my partner, Blair Sandburg."

Blair felt a pair of appraising cool blue eyes turn on him as he stuck out his hand. The grip that enfolded his was strong, almost painfully so and Blair fought not to wince. Quickly, he extricated his hand and smiled back at the new detective, surreptitiously massaging his hand behind his back. "Hi, Zac. It’s good to meet you."

Blair looked at Jim. "I didn’t know we were getting anyone new in."

Jim shrugged as he perched himself on the edge of Blair’s desk. "I thought I mentioned it to you."

"You’re not a cop, are you, Blair?"

Zac’s voice was deep, almost melodic and Blair turned back to him. "What? No, I’m a special consultant."

"Simon tried to convince Sandburg to go down that path last year," Jim put in. "The special consultant thing was a good compromise. Blair’s been my partner for four years now."

Blair flashed Jim a grateful smile. "I try to pull my weight," he said.

"I just mean that explains why you weren’t told about my assignment," Zac replied.

There was a long awkward silence before Blair spoke up again. "So, who are they putting you with?"

"Actually, I’m going to be riding with you and Jim for a couple of weeks."

Blair pushed his chair back quickly and stood up. "Jim, can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure," Jim said easily. "Excuse us a minute, Zac."

Zac waved them away with a flick of his hand and turned his attention to the case files littering Blair’s desk.

Blair waited until they were in the hallway before he spoke in a harsh whisper. "Are you sure that’s such a good idea, Jim? I mean, what about your senses, man?"

"There’s no reason for Zac to know, Sandburg. We just have to watch what we say. This guy is good, Chief. It’s quite a coup for Major Crime to get him. He graduated top of his class, his markmanship is second only to mine and his is with unassisted sight. He’s already received two bravery citations and his arrest record is incredible."

Blair waved away Jim’s words impatiently. "What if you zone?"

Jim reached out and ruffled Blair’s hair affectionately. "That’s why you’re my partner, to make sure I don’t."

"Jim…"

"Come on, Sandburg, I haven’t zoned in six months. What’s really the problem here?"

Blair folded his arms in front of his chest. "I don’t know, there’s just something about him."

"That comment about you not being a cop? Jesus, Sandburg, when are you going to grow a thicker skin?" Jim asked impatiently. "It’s just a statement of fact, not a personal insult."

"Fine," Blair answered and turned back to the bullpen.

"Look, Blair…"

"I said fine, didn’t I?" Blair snapped, his eyes blazing blue fire. He sighed, rubbing at his temples. "Sorry, I’m a little tired."

Jim looked instantly concerned and stepped forward, tilting Blair’s head to look at his eyes. "You still getting headaches?"

"Some," Blair leaned into Jim’s touch a little, disappointed when the detective dropped his hand. "I just need to get more sleep. This last case has made it hard."

"Murder’s never easy, Chief, but this one’s been a tough one," Jim replied, referring to the murder of a prostitute who had been discovered shot in the head in an alleyway. After death, she had been eviscerated. Everything pointed to it being a mob killing but Jim and Blair had yet to make the connection.

"Yeah." Blair smiled finally. "Okay, let’s go show the new kid around."

Jim clapped Blair on the shoulder. "You’re on."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair tried to will away the pounding in his head and let the boisterous conversation flow over him. His headache had grown steadily worse as the afternoon wore on, not helped by the two-hour car trip around Cascade, showing Zac the regular Major Crime haunts and hangouts. During that time, Blair had learned more about the darkly handsome detective. Zac Taylor was 30 years old, and a native of Seattle. He’d come to Cascade a year before and had initially transferred into Vice. He’d been pushing for a transfer to Major Crime for six months now and he hadn’t been reticent about telling Jim and Blair that Major Crime was lucky to have him.

He was tall and well-built, his dark hair cut regulation length but thick and luxuriant. His double-breasted suit was well-cut, expensive and suited him perfectly. Blair could see the outline of a broad chest tapering to narrow hips and strong thighs. Blair sighed, Zac Taylor was almost a younger clone of Jim Ellison and it was obvious that the detective had more than a passing interest in Blair’s partner.

He’d frowned when Zac had beaten him to the front door of Jim’s new car, relegating the consultant to the back seat. Hunching himself over the back of Jim’s seat, Blair glowered at the detective but merely got a smug smile in return. Jim had suggested dinner at The Pagoda restaurant and Blair had been about to beg off when he saw Zac lean over as Jim was describing the menu and place a proprietary hand on his partner’s leg. That did it, headache or no, Blair was going to dinner.

And now, was regretting his decision as he concentrated on his Laab Thai salad and felt his stomach give an ominous roll. He groaned softly and closed his eyes as a cramp clenched his abdominal muscles and he felt cold sweat break out on his skin.

"Sandburg?"

The voice seemed to come from a long way off and Blair lifted his heavy head in an attempt to focus on it. He felt a cool hand on the back of his neck and forced a wan smile to his lips. "I’m okay," he whispered, his voice sounding deafening against the throbbing of his head. "I just need to get some…. Oh man." With one hand over his mouth, Blair shot to his feet, his panicked eyes searching for the bathroom. Knocking over his chair in his haste, he didn’t bother with further explanations as he raced for the restroom, praying to make it on time.

He did, and he slumped back now on his heels, trying to suck in a few slow deep breaths and calm his racing heart. His head pounded in concert with the beat and he sighed as he felt a cool, damp towel wipe gently across his forehead. "Thanks," he said, wincing at the raw pain in his throat.

"You okay?"

Blair started to nod his head, then regretted it. "Actually, no. I think I’ve caught a dose of that stomach flu that’s been doing the rounds."

"Come on."

He felt Jim’s hand in his, strong and warm and he opened his eyes and struggled to his feet. He doubled over with a moan as the cramps hit him again full-force. "Sorry, I’m going to be a while," he said, pushing Jim unceremoniously out of the stall. "Go talk to Zac."

Jim frowned, seeming unconvinced, but before Blair could speak further, a loud grumble from his gut alerted both men and Blair slammed the door shut in Jim’s face and succumbed once more to the sickness.

What seemed an eternity later, he made his way slowly and carefully back to the table. His legs felt weak and shaky and his entire body was wet with sweat. He ignored the way Zac wrinkled his nose in distaste as he leaned across him and pulled his jacket from the back of the chair. "I’m going to get a cab home," he whispered, his throat on fire from the multiple assaults.

Jim stood immediately. "Don’t be silly. I’ll take you home. Zac understands, don’t you?"

Zac’s eyes said he didn’t but he nodded and placed a solicitous hand on Blair’s shivering shoulder. "Of course I do. I’ll get a cab back to my apartment and see you two in the morning. Blair, you take care of yourself now."

Blair nodded. "Thanks." Absurdly grateful for Jim’s concern, he allowed the detective to steer him toward the car, relishing Jim’s attentive touches as he buckled Blair’s seatbelt and turned the heater on.

By the time they reached the loft, Blair was rolling in the seat in pain, his fever rising in increments as he alternately shivered and sweated. Jim held him up through another bout of heaving, then stripped his sweat-damp clothes from him and washed him down, Blair wishing miserably that he felt well enough to enjoy it.

Jim soon had him bundled into comfortable sweats and then procured another miracle- a doctor who was prepared to do a house call. She came, gave Blair a quick visual check and confirmed his self-diagnosis, then injected him with enough painkillers and sedative to put a horse to sleep. Blair lay in his bed, allowing the mesmerizing stroke of Jim’s hand along his spine to lull him into a restless sleep.

Morning brought muddied recollections of pain and vomit and fevered dreams and Jim. Blair cracked open caked eyelids and tried to stifle the groan that clattered from his lips at the sunshine that poured through the window by the fire escape and sent slivers of agony through his head.

He lay for a long moment trying to convince his recalcitrant body to move, and eventually it did though Blair found no pleasure in it as his various aches and pains made themselves known. He stumbled into the bathroom and, when his shaky legs refused to hold him up, sat on the floor of the shower, allowing the soothing hot water to run over him and wash the stench of sickness from his body.

He suffered through another bout of vomiting that felt as though it was shredding his throat, then feeling marginally less than human, staggered into the kitchen in search of something to soothe his raw throat. He saw the note on the bench as he pulled a bottle of water from the fridge. Leaning forward, he rested the cold bottle against his hot forehead with a sigh of relief and a slight shiver. He picked up the slip of paper and attempted to focus his eyes on Jim’s scrawl. After a few minutes he managed to decipher the message that Jim had already gone to work and would phone at lunchtime to see how he was. He assured Blair that Zac would back him up for the next few days.

"Yeah, right," Blair croaked, wincing at the pain in his throat. "I just bet he will." With that bitter thought, he dragged himself back to bed.

0~0~0~0~0

Jim pulled up outside the bank building and got out. Stepping onto the sidewalk, he waited for Zac to catch up with him before he hurried to meet his captain. "Simon? What have we got?"

"Hey Jim, Zac. We’ve got one bank robber holding a woman teller hostage. He was almost out the door when the uniforms arrived after the silent alarm was triggered. He allowed everyone else to leave and said that he won’t let her go unless he’s promised safe passage. You know the drill."

Jim nodded and stepped closer to the edge of the building. He risked a look around the corner, ducking back quickly when a gunshot rang out.

"Stay away or I’ll shoot her, I swear," came a disembodied, panic-filled voice from the direction of the bank.

"Jim, what do you want to do?" Zac asked, laying a hand on the detective’s arm.

"Do we know if there’s a back entrance?"

"Yes, there is but he’s locked the door," Simon answered.

Jim cocked his head for a moment, then shook it. "He’s taking the woman out that way. Where does it come out?"

"The alley on Fourth."

Jim looked at Zac. "Let’s go."

Zac nodded and quickly followed the hurrying detective back to the car. Jim steered the car onto Fourth Street and left it just shy of the mouth of the alley. He got out and motioned for Zac to follow him, demonstrating the need for silence with hand signals. Zac nodded and mirrored Jim’s actions in pulling his weapon from its holster.

The alley appeared quiet and Jim risked a quick look around the corner. He could see no sign of the bank robber or his hostage and extended his hearing once more into the bank…

…to return to his senses with Zac whispering urgently to him as he stroked a gentle hand up and down his back.

"Jim? Jim? What’s wrong?"

Jim blinked and drew in a deep breath before rubbing at his eyes. "Sorry."

"You all right?" Zac regarded him worriedly.

"I’m fine. Get back, he’s on his way out."

Zac studied him for a moment longer, then appearing satisfied, pressed himself back against the brick wall.

"Now!" Jim nodded and stepped quickly into the mouth of the alley, his sidearm up and aimed at the man just exiting the back door of the bank building. He dragged a petite woman out with one hand and spun around at Jim’s shout, pulling her in front of him and pressing his gun to her temple.

"I’ll kill her," he threatened, his voice and weapon shaking violently.

Jim shook his head and took a step forward. "You don’t want to do that," he said. "Let her go."

The man shook his head and pushed the gun firmly into the woman’s head, eliciting a moan of pain from her. "I won’t warn you again. Put down your gun or I’ll kill her."

Zac Taylor stepped seemingly out of nowhere behind the pair and pressed his own gun into the back of the gunman’s head. "I don’t think so," he said. "Drop the weapon now."

The robber complied with haste and was quickly handcuffed and dragged off to a waiting car. Zac gathered the frightened young woman into his arms and comforted her until a policewoman arrived to help.

"That was a nice bit of work," Jim said as they walked back to the car. "I didn’t even realize you were gone."

Zac smiled widely. "Thanks," he said. "I remember this area. There’s a grocery store next door and I came out through their loading bay." He shrugged. "I figured it was worth a shot."

He smiled again and clapped Jim on the shoulder and Jim couldn’t help thinking what an incredible smile he had.

0~0~0~0~0

"You zoned?!" Blair sat up in his bed and groaned. "Oh man, I don’t believe it. Wait. Yes, I do. I should have been there. Did Zac notice anything? What were you doing? Who pulled you out of it?"

Jim held up a hand to staunch the flow of words. "Easy, Sandburg. Slow down or you’ll have a coronary. I guess I just concentrated too hard. Zac pulled me out of it."

Blair looked up sharply from where he’d begun to recline back on his pillows. "You didn’t tell him?"

"Of course not," Jim answered. "He was great though. Just kept talking and rubbing my back, just like you do until I surfaced again. Then he took off and disarmed the perp. He’s quite a guy."

"Yeah," Blair answered glumly. "Quite a guy."

"You want me to fix you some soup or something?" Jim asked, standing up.

Blair flopped over onto his side, facing the wall. "No, thanks. I’m not hungry."

"You should eat, Chief…"

Blair sat up, wincing when the movement sparked a throbbing in his head. "I said I’m not hungry."

"Fine. Suit yourself." Jim backed off toward the door.

Blair rolled onto his back. "I’m sorry, Jim. I’m just feeling a little under the weather still and I’m worried about you. You haven’t had a zone-out in months."

Jim’s brow furrowed. "I know. Still, everything’s okay now."

Blair smiled wanly. "Yeah. I’ll be back at work with you tomorrow."

"Are you sure that’s wise? I mean this stomach flu really laid you low there for a while. Zac and I…"

"I’ll be fine," Blair answered. "I’m feeling better already."

"In that case, do you mind if I head on out for a couple of hours? Zac was telling me about this really nice Greek restaurant. I don’t know how the guy does it, but he managed somehow to score tickets for that jazz concert in the park that I’ve been wanting to go to."

"No, of course not." Blair rolled back to face the wall. "Have a good time."

Jim stood and watched the now silent figure for a moment, then turned and padded upstairs to get changed.

0~0~0~0~0

Zac Taylor pulled his Jaguar into a vacant space in front of the loft and turned to smile at his companion. Jim smiled back, his mood mellowed by the wine he’d drunk at the restaurant.

"Thanks, Zac," Jim said. "I had a great night."

"My pleasure," Zac replied, his dark blue eyes crinkling in pleasure. "I enjoyed myself just as much."

"Look, about today. I just lost my focus there for a second or two, but thanks for pulling me out of it."

"Hey, no problem." Zac waved the comment away. "It’s what partners do, right?"

Jim paused for a moment, then pointed up at the apartment. "Right. I better go before my other partner sends out a search party." He grimaced in embarrassment even as he said the words. "Not that he would, really," he finished lamely.

Zac shrugged. "He’s your roommate and partner. Can I ask you something?"

"Shoot."

"Is he more than that?"

"What?"

"I mean, is Blair your partner in every sense of the word?"

"No! I’m not …he’s not…" Jim fumbled with the words.

"You sure about that?" Zac asked, shifting closer to him. "Don’t think I haven’t noticed you looking at me." He leaned in and gently touched his lips to Jim’s, the spicy scent of his cologne wafting over Jim, causing his arousal to flare. Jim stiffened at the contact, then returned the kiss, opening his mouth and allowing Zac to push his tongue inside. He allowed the kiss to continue for a minute or two, then broke away, panting.

"I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did that."

"I think you do," Zac answered.

"I’d better go."

Zac nodded. "I’ll see you tomorrow. Guess it’s just you and me for a couple of days until Blair’s feeling better."

"Actually, Sandburg says he’ll be fine by tomorrow, though I’m not too sure about that myself."

"Oh." Zac paused and Jim thought he saw a flash of anger in the other man’s eyes but it was gone as quickly as it appeared. "Well, tell him I said hi, and I’ll see you both in the morning."

"Okay." Jim exited the car and stood watching as Zac pulled out and drove away. His thoughts churned, as he berated himself for letting another man kiss him. He wasn’t gay. He had been watching Zac, though, wondering what it would be like to make love to him, picturing him naked. And then comparing Zac to Blair. He felt his face heat up with the realization. Embarrassed, he shook the thoughts from his mind and turned to enter the apartment building.

Jim trudged up the stairs to the apartment and quietly let himself in. He extended his hearing into Blair’s room and could tell that the younger man was asleep, his breathing even and deep. Jim stopped for a moment at the doorway to Blair’s bedroom and dialed up his sight to better see his sleeping partner. Blair was sprawled face-up on the bed, the covers draped haphazardly over his legs, and his arms flung out wide. Though he normally rugged up even for bed, in deference to his still-hovering fever, Blair had gone to bed dressed only in a pair of cotton boxers.

Jim let his gaze travel over the broad chest, lightly dusted with dark hair and grinned at the glint of a nipple ring, remembering Blair’s pronouncement after his run-in with David Lash, that he’d decided get a tattoo, stunned when Jim mentioned the nipple ring he already had.

Jim frowned, had he been watching Blair even then? Admiring the firm chest, the surprisingly well-muscled arms and legs, the perfect ass beneath tight jeans? Jim sucked in a shaky breath and rubbed a trembling hand over his hardening erection as he pictured the thick cock that lay between Blair’s legs. He bit his lip as a moan escaped at the thought of Blair’s hips arching up at the sensation of Jim’s lips swallowing his aching length.

He hadn’t really thought about it before he met Zac, but Blair was beautiful, and more surprisingly, the thought didn’t bother him at all

The two men had been living and working together for four years. In that time, their friendship had endured attempts on their lives, kidnappings by serial killers and drug poisoning that had rendered Jim blind and left Blair in a coma on life support for a week. It had culminated in Blair’s death at the hands of a rogue sentinel and his resuscitation by Jim seemingly channeling the healing powers of a shaman and their spirit guides. Finally, the bond of friendship and love had almost been torn asunder by a loving, well-meaning mother and an unscrupulous publisher who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Jim’s carefully concealed abilities had almost become public knowledge and to spare them all the chance of that happening, Blair had made another sacrifice that was perhaps as great as giving his life. He declared himself a fraud to the world’s press and relinquished that which he had lived for and which had brought him into Jim Ellison’s life four years before. His life’s work.

The sacrifice had been worthwhile Blair insisted, because it had reunited them and strengthened the bond between them. After all, Blair said, the Holy Grail he sought was not nearly as valuable as the friendship they shared. And love, Jim added silently.

Blair had then declared that his dissertation was simply a path to his Holy Grail. The ultimate reward had been the bond between sentinel and guide that linked them to each other. Blair decided that becoming Jim’s guide had been his destiny all along. Jim had not initially been eager to share Blair’s views on the paranormal aspect of their relationship. Now, he wondered if he had been too hasty in discounting it. Perhaps the attraction he felt for Blair was indeed a ‘Sentinel’ thing.

Had the love always been there, he wondered now. In one form or another, he supposed it had. Even early in the relationship Blair had shown himself time and again willing to throw himself into whatever Jim was investigating, lending his not inconsiderable skills of observation and his knowledge of people and what makes them tick to the mix, regardless of the risk. Jim, in return, had developed something of a mother-hen complex where Blair Sandburg was concerned. The young man was considered a trouble-magnet, a fact that often took Jim’s hovering to extreme lengths. Blair endured it all with equanimity and barely restrained patience.

The offer of a police badge had been done with the best of intentions. It offered a solution to allow Blair to remain at Jim’s side indefinitely and it was, in a way, an appeasement for Blair’s loss of career, but also an acknowledgement of his skill and value to the Major Crime team. Jim had known almost from the beginning that the job would not sit right with the peace-loving, gun-abhorring guide. A compromise was the offer of a position as a special consultant to the team.

Now, here he was, standing in his partner’s room, ogling him as he slept. With an audible sigh, Jim dragged his eyes away from the sight of Blair sprawled on the bed, deeply asleep. He reddened as he felt his cock harden at the sight of Blair’s erection straining against the material of his boxers, its tip leaving a wet stain on the cotton at the young man’s crotch.

Before he’d realized he’d moved, Jim had taken two quick steps to the bedside. Hesitantly, he reached down and twirled his fingers around one soft curl. He froze as Blair muttered softly and shifted in the bed. Quickly, he turned and walked toward the door.

"Jim? W’ass wrong?"

Blair’s drowsy voice stopped him in his tracks. "Nothing. Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep."

0~0~0~0~0

As it happened, Jim was right when he’d said Blair didn’t look well enough to go into work. Blair rested his aching head on one hand and listened to his stomach churn ominously as it attempted to digest the dry toast he’d just forced down. He didn’t feel well enough to go in either, he thought miserably. A hand on his shoulder rescued him from his depressing thoughts and he looked up and smiled wanly at Jim, who hovered over him, a worried frown creasing his handsome face.

"Are you sure you’ll be okay here on your own?"

"Jim, I have the stomach flu, not Ebola," Blair answered, then regretted it when Jim lifted his hand. He stayed it and squeezed Jim’s fingers softly. "Sorry, I’m just cranky. I’ll be fine."

Jim smiled and returned the squeeze, then ruffled Blair’s hair. "That’s okay."

Blair swiveled in his seat. "Just promise me that if you have to go out on a case, you’ll take Simon or Joel or someone to watch your back."

"Sandburg, I’ll be fine." Jim snagged a slice of toast on his way to the door. "Zac can back me up. He did just fine yesterday."

"I know that," Blair answered glumly. "Just promise me, all right? I’ll feel better knowing that Simon or Joel is with you."

Jim shrugged as he put on his jacket. "Okay."

"What time will you be home? I could cook something special. It’s…"

"Don’t go to any bother," Jim cut in. "You probably won’t want to be around food, anyway." With a wave, he disappeared out the door.

"Right. No problem." Blair waved at the closed door and picked up the breakfast dishes. "Just great."

With a sigh he lowered himself back to his seat at the table and thought over the last few days. He’d had feelings for Jim for some time now, not just feelings of friendship, or of love as for one’s brother, but a soul-deep, heart-aching, erection-hardening love. He wanted Jim to take him upstairs, strip him naked and then fuck him into next week. He’d had a feeling that perhaps Jim was starting to feel the same way, until Zac Taylor had arrived. In truth, Blair knew that his real concern wasn't Jim zoning and Zac discovering his sentinel abilities, but that Zac appeared to have an interest in Jim too, and Zac seemed to be winning.

Well, Blair wasn’t giving up without a fight, he decided, slamming a fist onto the table. If Zac Taylor wanted Jim Ellison, he was going to have to work for it. Mind made up, Blair stood up and headed for his bedroom to get dressed. He spent the day cleaning the loft until it sparkled, then at about 4 o’clock, he forced down the nausea that still clawed at him at the thought of food and opened the refrigerator. It had been said that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, and Blair knew that the way to Jim Ellison’s stomach was with lasagna. Assembling the ingredients he needed, he was about to start chopping vegetables when the phone rang. Wiping his hands on Jim’s floral apron, Blair picked up the receiver and spoke.

"Blair Sandburg."

"Hey, Blair, it’s Zac Taylor."

Blair felt his heart begin to pound in trepidation. "Zac? What’s happened? Is Jim all right?"

"Calm down, Sandburg. Jim’s fine. Look, I told him I’d call you. He’s caught up talking to Simon about the Collins’ case. We, Jim, Simon and myself, that is, are heading out to the Jags game tonight. Simon managed to score some tickets from a friend of his. So, Jim won’t be home till late."

"Oh."

"Oh, hey, stupid of me, I didn’t even think. Do you feel up to coming? I can see if Simon can get another ticket. Or….look, why don’t you guys all go. After all, you’re all friends, I’m sure Jim and Simon would rather have you there than me."

"No, it’s fine," Blair interrupted, even as he cursed his big mouth. "I’m still not feeling too great. You guys go. Have a great time. Tell Jim I’ll see him in the morning."

"If you’re sure." Zac’s voice dripped honey and Blair almost threw up just from the sound. "You think you’ll be up to coming in tomorrow?"

"I’ll make sure I am."

"Oh, okay. If you’re not, though, Jim and I can handle things. Jim took a call from a snitch by the name of Eddie Dodd today. He wants to meet tomorrow but he said he’ll only talk to you."

"I’ll be there." Hanging up the phone, Blair slowly put the food back into the refrigerator. He made himself a cup of tea and wandered back into his bedroom where he crawled into bed and pulled the covers up over his head.

0~0~0~0~0

"I don’t believe you did that, man!" Blair stomped his way into the bullpen and threw his backpack onto his desk, sending paper and pens skittering in all directions.

"Jesus, Sandburg, calm down, will you?"

Blair whirled and glared at Zac Taylor. "No. I won’t fucking calm down. Do you realize how long it’s taken to get Eddie to trust me? We had a good lead on Mary Collins’ murderer and thanks to you doing your Hulk impersonation, it’s all shot to hell. For all we know, if the word gets out that Eddie’s talked to us, he could be targeted too."

Zac shrugged. "Goes with the territory when you’re a snitch, Sandburg. Anyway, he didn’t talk to us. He shut up tight."

"Thanks to you," Blair shouted.

Blair was in Zac’s face now, his eyes blazing and Jim watched the two men warily, ready to jump in, should the situation get out of control. The anthropologist was fairly vibrating with anger, his pale face beaded with sweat, his breath coming in sharp, angry puffs. Zac, in startling contrast, was relaxed, laid back, Jim could have sworn he seemed amused by the whole thing. Blair raised a finger now and stabbed it into Zac's broad chest and Jim took a precautionary step toward the two men.

"Sandburg."

Blair didn’t spare him a glance. "Keep out of it, Jim. This is between Mr. Macho and me." Zac gave a sharp snort of laughter at the expression but his eyes narrowed in anger. Before he could speak, Blair continued. "I’ve known Eddie Dodd for three years now. I taught his brother at the university. He trusts me. Any intel we get from him is always on the up. He told us as much as he knew. If he says the word on the street is that Mary Collins was executed because she ratted on Daniel Amalfi to the mob for taking more than his share in the protection racket, then that’s what happened. You barging in there and smacking the guy into a wall because he can’t give us the name of the murderer won’t change that. Now, Eddie’s running and I don’t know if he’ll ever trust me again. Not to mention that you made enough noise to alert every other fucking snitch on the street that Eddie was singing. How long do you suppose that gives him before Amalfi finds him too? Huh?" He punctuated his last comment with a hard prod to Zac’s chest and the cop suddenly exploded.

Before anyone in the office could react, Zac had barreled Blair across the room, stopping only when the anthropologist’s back slammed into Simon’s door with a resounding crash. "Now, listen to me, you little shit," Zac ground out. "I was doing my job. Nothing else. You want to babysit these scum, fine, but don’t get in the way of my investigation. Got it? You’re not a fucking cop, Sandburg."

Large, strong hands pried them apart before Blair could form a reply. "All right, both of you. Settle down before the captain throws you both out on your asses," Jim said. He turned his attention to Zac first. "Blair’s right. He’s been able to build up a good relationship with Eddie Dodd, based on Eddie knowing that Blair will do the right thing by him. Because of that, we’ve been able to keep our finger on the pulse of the mob here in Cascade. You go running in there and scare the guy off, it’s only going to seal the place up tight, and I don’t just mean Mary Collins’ murder." Jim waited until Zac acknowledged his words. "Why don’t you go do a rundown on Amalfi. See what you can find out about him."

Zac nodded sullenly. "I need to make a phone call," he said, aiming an angry glare at Blair, who returned it with equal venom.

"Blair? Sandburg!"

"What?" Blair dragged his gaze away from the other man and finally looked at Jim.

Jim sighed and massaged his aching jaw. "Go talk to some of Eddie’s friends and his brother. Put the word out that he’s safer with us watching him than going it alone. Let’s see if we can convince him to come back in."

Blair nodded once and stormed from the room. Jim watched him start down the stairs at a run and shaking his head, went in search of coffee and aspirin.

0~0~0~0~0

Blair walked quickly down the narrow alleyway, his eyes flickering from side to side as he attempted to see past the shadowed corners, his thoughts still caught up in his blazing argument with Zac Taylor. His pleasure that Jim had backed him up in the war of words was tempered by the fact that Eddie Dodd was now in serious trouble. The word from other small-time hoods on the street was that the snitch had a contract out on him. Eddie’s brother had said that there was a chance that the frightened man may have returned to the small camp of addicts that inhabited the back blocks of the red-light district of Cascade. There, he could lose himself amongst the hodge-podge of anonymous characters and feel safe.

Movement from Blair’s right startled him and he was suddenly pulled up short as a strong arm encircled his throat. A hard blow to his lower back made him writhe in pain and another fist sunk into his gut, stealing his breath. As he doubled over in agony, fighting the black haze that was crowding out his vision, a voice hissed in his ear. "Got a message for you, Sandburg, Daniel Amalfi says to stay out of his business or you’re going to get what Eddie Dodd got."

Blair struggled desperately to escape the punishing grip on his throat, fear fuelling his strength and finally he succeeded in tearing himself from the choking hold. He backed up until he hit the alley wall, his eyes watering as his lungs burnt with the effort of drawing in precious oxygen. As he straightened, he saw more dark figures detach themselves from the shadows and he flinched as his arms were gripped tight and pulled behind his back in a punishing grip. Another brutal blow to his stomach doubled him over and a back-hander to his cheek snapped his head back. A face leaned in close to him, garlic-tainted breath causing bile to surge up his throat. "We’re going to give you a little taste of what’s in store if you don’t back off."

With that, the hands holding him up loosened their grip and Blair collapsed to the dirty, wet ground, his knees thumping painfully onto the pavement. A boot found his ribs and he cried out, one hand coming up in a futile attempt to stay the blows he knew were about to fall, and then the attack began in earnest as boots and fists unerringly found their target. It was over in a matter of minutes and the gang disappeared into the shadows once more, leaving the bruised and bleeding anthropologist unconscious on the ground.

0~0~0~0~0

"Detective Ellison. Where’s Blair Sandburg?"

Blair couldn’t resist a smile, though it re-opened the cut in his lip, as he heard his partner’s familiar voice echo in the corridor. He looked up expectantly as the door was flung open and Jim rushed into the room. Blair’s heart sank as he saw Zac Taylor enter a few steps behind.

"Sandburg! Are you okay? Hey, Doc, what’s the damage?" By the time Jim finished speaking, he was at Blair’s side. One gentle hand reached out to tilt Blair’s head up to better see the injuries to his face and Blair felt a lump form in his throat at the touch. "Oh man, they really did a number on you, didn’t they?"

Blair shrugged and then nodded, accepting a tissue to dab at the blood once more beading on his lip. He felt tears sting his eyes as Jim placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. The simple touch was enough to burst open the floodgates of emotion and Blair lowered his head as a hoarse sob was wrenched from his throat and he began to shake.

"Hey, hey, it’s okay. Everything’s all right now. You’re going to be fine." Jim’s hand moved to Blair’s head and stroked softly. "Right, Doc?"

"Yes, he is," the doctor said kindly as she picked up a syringe and vial from the rollaway table. "You’re suffering from shock, Blair, both emotional and physical and the adrenaline in your system has been depleted. I’m going to give you something to help you sleep and relieve the pain."

"No. I don’t need anything. I just want to go home," Blair grated hoarsely.

The doctor hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Only if someone can stay with you. Is that possible, Jim?"

"No problem, Doc," Jim replied, still stroking Blair’s curls. He helped the anthropologist sit up carefully and pull on his blood-spattered shirt and sweater. "What’s the damage?"

The doctor spoke as she cleared away the medical tray and washed her hands. "He was lucky," she began. "Though I doubt Blair thinks so. He’s got numerous bruises to his face, chest and back. A gash on his cheek that I’ve sutured and a split lip that’s going to make eating difficult for a few days. His left kidney is bruised from kicks or blows. I want to keep a close eye on that, so make sure he gets plenty of fluids. If you notice any blood in your urine, Blair, you get yourself back here, understand?"

Blair nodded and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

"His throat’s pretty bruised too, so he’s having some trouble talking," the doctor continued. "Best if he keeps speaking to a minimum for a day or two. I’m going to insist on prescribing some pain relief for you, Blair. Jim? You make sure he takes it at least until tomorrow night." She wiped her hands on a paper towel and smiled at the three men. "All right, I’m done here. Blair, you come back in five days and get those stitches removed. You might want to think about some counseling too."

Blair opened his mouth to argue that he didn’t need a counselor but stopped when he saw Jim watching him closely. He sighed again and nodded.

"Okay, let’s get you home, buddy," Jim said, placing a hand under Blair’s elbow and helping him to stand. He waited patiently while Blair regained his balance, then started them moving slowly toward the door.

Zac finally spoke up as they approached. "How are you doing, Blair?"

Blair made a so-so gesture with his hand and attempted a weak smile.

"Look, about earlier…" The anthropologist stopped him with a hand on his arm. "It’s okay," he whispered, grimacing at the pain in his throat. "Just as much my fault."

Zac nodded. "Did you see any of your attackers?"

Blair shook his head. "They said it was a warning from Amalfi to keep my mouth shut or I’d get the same as Eddie."

Zac nodded and looked at Jim. "Why don’t you take Blair home? I’ll see if I can track down either Dodd or Amalfi. I’ll call you if we get a break."

"Okay. Thanks."

Zac laid a hand on Blair’s arm. "You take care."

Blair nodded and allowed Jim to help him from the room.

0~0~0~0~0

Blair was almost asleep by the time they got back to the loft, his exhaustion finally catching up with him. He stirred to life as Jim opened the passenger-door and helped him carefully to the ground, then solicitously steered him inside. Blair headed to the couch as soon as the front door was opened, lowering himself to the seat with more than a few groans of pain. Jim stood and watched him for a moment.

"Don’t you think you should try to get some sleep?" he asked finally.

"I don’t know if I can," Blair answered in a whisper. "The memories are just too vivid right now and I still ache all over."

"Why don’t I make you some tea, that Sleepytime stuff you like?"

"Sure," Blair readily agreed. "That might help."

Jim nodded, pleased that he was able to help. "Go lay down. I’ll bring it in to you."

Blair made his way slowly into the bedroom and lowered himself gingerly onto the bed. The pain-killer he’d been given at the hospital made him feel a little groggy and he floated at the edge of sleep. He felt the bed dip as Jim sat down and he began to turn over. Jim halted his movement with a hand on his shoulder.

"Take off your shirt. I’ve got some liniment here that might ease your muscles a little. Then you can drink your tea."

Blair nodded and sat up with Jim’s help, pulling his grubby, bloodstained sweater over his head, followed by his shirt and tee. He wrinkled his nose at the odor of smelly water and refuse that coated the material. "Dial your smell down, Jim. This is disgusting."

"You want to take a shower first?"

Blair shook his head, yawning. "I don’t think I could stand up for long enough."

"I could hold you up," Jim offered and Blair stared at him for a moment, trying to decide if the comment had been made in jest. His foggy thoughts could not decide and so he simply lay back down on his stomach. An in-drawn breath from Jim indicated that the bruises must be pretty spectacular and he flinched at the first sensation of Jim’s hand down his back. Then he relaxed at the gentle touch that trailed down his spine and swept back up.

"It’ll be cold for a minute."

Blair shivered at the frigid gel against his skin, then sighed in pleasure as Jim began to massage it into sore muscles and bruised flesh. He felt himself drifting toward sleep with the mesmerizing touch on his back that dipped lower now and brushed along his waist and hips.

"Love you, Jim," Blair whispered. Then his eyes snapped open and he stiffened as his drugged mind finally caught up with his runaway tongue. "Oh God, Jim. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that."

Jim’s hands pressed him back onto the mattress as he struggled to rise. "Shh," Jim whispered and Blair felt a tremor pass through him as soft, warm lips pressed gently on the nape of his neck. "It’s all right. I love you, too."

Blair turned over and sat up. Jim smiled and shrugged. "Don’t know why I waited so long to say it. It didn’t hurt a bit."

"Jim…" The phone ambushed the rest of Blair’s words and he frowned as Jim stood and headed to the door.

"Hold that thought," the detective said. "Be back in a minute."

When five full minutes passed and Jim hadn’t returned, Blair knew the phone call was bad news. His fears were confirmed when he padded out into the living room pulling a clean sweater on. Jim was just hanging up the phone, a worried frown on his face. "Jim? What’s wrong?"

"That was Zac," Jim replied. "Eddie Dodd’s been found shot dead in an alleyway not far from where you were attacked."

"Oh God," Blair felt cold sweat stand out on his skin and the floor seemed to rise up sharply to meet him. Then Jim’s strong arms were around him, leading him to sit at the dining table. Gently, his head was pushed down between his knees and a warm hand stroked up and down his back.

"You know the drill. Slow, deep breaths." Jim’s voice was right by his ear and Blair struggled to obey and calm his breathing.

"This is all my fault," Blair whispered. "I was too slow. Too late."

"Don’t go blaming yourself," Jim admonished gently. "We don’t know anything yet. Will you be okay if I go take a look at the scene?"

Blair raised his head. "I’m coming with you."

Jim shook his head. "The doctor said you need to take it easy for a few days."

"And you told her you’d stay with me," Blair argued stubbornly. "You know you’ll pick more up if I’m there to ground you. Then you can take me to see Michael Dodd."

Jim nodded finally. "All right, but if you start feeling bad, you’re coming home."

"Okay. Jim? About the other stuff?" Blair motioned toward his bedroom.

"We’ll talk about it later," Jim said as he handed Blair his jacket. "Just as soon as we get home."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair took a deep breath as Jim pulled his car into the mouth of the alley. The narrow thoroughfare was no different to the hundreds of others that traversed Cascade’s streets but Blair knew this one held the body of a young man that he’d come to like despite Eddie Dodd’s obvious problems. It was also entirely too close to the alley where he’d been attacked and beaten. Jim looked over at him, worry creasing his brow.

"You all right?"

Blair nodded and attempted a wobbly smile, though it wasn’t terribly successful. "Fine. Let’s get this over with."

The two men exited the car and headed quickly toward the far end of the alleyway. Blair could see the yellow police tape fluttering in the wind and getting closer, he saw Simon standing just outside the perimeter talking to somebody. Blair’s heart sank as the person turned at their approach and he recognized Zac.

"Hey Jim. Blair! Good to see you up and about," Zac said.

Blair nodded briefly and ducked under the police tape, wincing at the pull on his bruised ribs and back, his steps faltering as he got closer to the still body that lay slumped face-down on the ground. Dan Wolfe looked up and nodded.

"Hey, Blair, Jim."

"What have you got, Dan?" Jim asked, squatting next to the pathologist.

"All pretty straight forward, really," Dan replied. He brushed Eddie Dodd’s dark hair back from his temple to reveal a large, messy wound. "One bullet to the head. Obvious execution. Death was instantaneous. Small caliber weapon at close range but I’ll confirm all the details when I get him to the morgue. There was an attempt to eviscerate the body but only superficial cuts were made."

"Maybe he got interrupted," Jim said.

Dan smiled grimly at Blair. "Sorry, Blair. I understand he was one of yours."

"Yeah. Thanks, Dan." Steeling his stomach, Blair leaned in behind Jim and placed one hand on the detective’s back, wrapping the other around his own tender ribs. "You know the routine, Jim," he instructed softly. "Let’s see if the bastard left any clues this time." He stayed silent after that. A question from Taylor was silenced with a venomous glare from Blair and the young detective had the grace to look abashed as he stepped back from the two men.

After several minutes, Jim blew out a breath and shook his head. He spoke softly, just loud enough for Blair to decipher his words. "There’s something here. A smell, but it’s just there." He craned his head to look at his partner. "A odor, almost a taste. I know it, at least it seems to be familiar but I can’t put my finger on it. Sorry, Chief."

Blair stood and clapped the detective on the shoulder. "That’s okay, big guy. Maybe it’ll come to you. You want to check out the rest of the alley?"

"Yeah," Jim answered, standing up. "It’s worth a shot."

The two men moved off, Blair never straying far from Jim’s side as the detective methodically searched every square inch of the narrow alley. After 30 minutes of fruitless searching, Jim stopped and massaged the bridge of his nose. He started at the touch on his forearm.

"Headache?" Blair asked.

"Yeah, a little."

Blair nodded, beginning to feel the pain from his own injuries. His skin felt cold and clammy and his lower back ached badly. Jim frowned and pressed one hand to Blair’s forehead.

"You have a fever," he said. "Let’s get you home."

Blair shook his head. "Not yet. I want to talk to Michael. He might know something. Besides, I need to tell him I’m sorry."

"This wasn’t your fault, Sandburg," Jim said as they headed back to the car. "Eddie was a target the minute he opened his mouth."

"I could have protected him better," Blair answered stubbornly. "I shouldn’t have let him leave."

Jim sighed and squeezed Blair’s shoulder. "Jim?" He turned at Zac’s summons and waited for the other detective to catch up with them.

"It’s pretty obvious Amalfi’s responsible, especially with what the guys who attacked Blair told him."

"We’ll know more after we speak with Michael," Jim said carefully. "Simon’s got Henri and Rafe doing a door to door in the area for witnesses."

"Not much chance of that," Zac replied, waving an expansive arm around. "It’s pretty deserted."

"Yeah, though there’s the fact that the murderer didn’t go through with the evisceration."

"Maybe he just couldn’t go through with it. You want me to come with you to interview Dodd’s brother? Sandburg looks out on his feet."

"I’m fine," Blair interrupted from the passenger seat of the car. "Eddie was my responsibility. I’ll talk to his family."

Zac nodded. "Sure, whatever. I’ll go give Henri and Rafe a hand."

"Thanks, Zac. I appreciate it. We’ll get together with you at the station in an hour or so. See what we all can come up with."

"Okay," Zac agreed. He ducked his head to look at Blair. "Take it easy, Blair."

Blair nodded and went back to staring blindly out the front of the car, his thoughts already churning as he pictured having to tell Michael Dodd that his little brother was dead.

0~0~0~0~0

Michael Dodd met them at the front door of his apartment with a forlorn, heartbroken expression on his face. "Eddie’s dead, isn’t he?"

"I’m sorry," Blair whispered.

Michael shrugged, his shoulders hunched with fatigue. "I’ve been waiting for this moment for five years, Mr. Sandburg."

"Blair, please. This is my partner, Detective Jim Ellison. Mike, can we come in for a couple of minutes?"

The young man nodded and stepped back from the door, ushering them into a neat, small living room. "Take a seat. Can I get you anything, tea, coffee?"

"No, thanks," Jim answered as he sat on the couch and pulled his notebook and pen from his pocket. "We’ll try not to take up too much of your time."

Michael Dodd nodded but his attention was now firmly fixed on Blair. "Jesus, Blair. What happened to you?"

"It’s nothing, really," Blair answered. He waved away the young man’s concerns and seated himself next to Jim. "Why don’t you tell us what you can about Eddie?"

Mike nodded and lowered his lanky frame into an armchair. He scrubbed a hand through his short red hair before he spoke. "My mother always said that Eddie was born in trouble. He was premature, sickly all through his childhood. He struggled at school and drifted into a gang when he was just fourteen. When our parents were killed in a car accident the following year, Eddie dropped out of school and left home. He lived on the streets, begging, stealing. I tried to get him to come live with me several times and a couple of times, he did. And he tried, really tried to stay away from the drugs. But it was just too hard for him. They always lured him back." He smiled as a tear slipped unnoticed down his cheek. "He always said that I was the brains and he was the brawn. What a team."

"What do you know about Eddie’s connection to Daniel Amalfi?" Jim asked.

Mike shrugged. "Nothing really. It’s just a name that came up once or twice. The gang that Eddie ran with had dealings with Amalfi. He said Amalfi was involved in some sort of protection racket and the gang was his muscle. Amalfi kept his share and passed the rest on to somebody higher up." His face went impossibly whiter and he stood up quickly. "Was Eddie cut up? Like that girl?"

"No." Blair spoke up quickly, shooting Jim a warning glance. There was no need now to bring up the grisly details of Eddie’s death. "He was shot."

"I’m sorry. I don’t feel very well. All this talk of killing and Eddie…"

Blair stood as well and took the young man’s arm. "Where’s the bathroom?"

"Down the hall. Oh God."

Blair helped the young man to the bathroom. Jim dialed down his hearing as retching began but he could still hear Blair’s soothing guide voice as Michael Dodd began to cry.

0~0~0~0~0

Blair sat in the passenger seat of the car staring straight ahead. Jim watched him for a moment, then hesitantly reached out and took his partner's hand. Blair looked at him but pulled his hand away. "I don’t know if I can do this anymore."

Jim felt a cold dread settle over him at the words. "What this?" he managed to get out.

"I thought I was helping Eddie out," Blair began. "Instead I was condemning him to continue living his life on the streets, sticking needles in his veins. Getting shot dead. He was only 20 years old and he looked 35."

"You didn’t supply the drugs. You didn’t fire the gun that killed him."

Blair flashed Jim an angry look. "I paid him for his information. Money he used to buy whatever his drug of choice was."

"If you hadn’t, some other cop would have."

"I thought I was helping him," Blair said again. He looked down at his hands, then reached out and took Jim’s hand back in his, squeezing it gently. "I’m tired. Would you mind taking me home and talking to Simon and the others on your own?"

"Not a problem," Jim said, starting the car. "Anything you want."

0~0~0~0~0

Jim knocked at the captain’s door then entered at his invitation. Simon looked up from his perusal of the report in front of him and motioned the detective to a seat. "You get anything useful from Dodd’s brother?"

"No, sir. Nothing we didn’t already know. What about Zac and the others? Did they turn up any witnesses?"

Simon sighed and shook his head. "An old guy who was so drunk he could barely string two words together. Claims he saw the shooter but the description doesn’t match Amalfi."

"Maybe he paid someone else to do it."

"Maybe. Though Amalfi was small-time. Would he have had that sort of money?"

"Well, the word is that he got someone to cut up Mary Collins, maybe he got a two for one deal and he had to have paid the thugs who beat up on Sandburg."

"Yeah. How is Sandburg?"

"Sore, tired, disillusioned. He’ll be okay. He just needs some time."

"Okay." Simon looked up at the knock on his door. Rafe poked his head in the door.

"Jim? Phone call from Sandburg. Do you want to take it in here?"

Jim nodded and stood. "Yeah. Thanks, Rafe. I got it."

"Where is Sandburg?" Simon asked as he handed Jim the phone receiver and punched in an extension number.

Jim held a hand over the mouth-piece. "I took him home. He was pretty shaken up over Eddie." Removing his hand, he spoke into the receiver. "Blair? Are you okay?"

The voice was little more than a whisper, the words breathless and shaky. "I had a phone call from Daniel Amalfi. He wants to meet me."

"Where?"

Blair disregarded Jim’s question. "He said he knows who killed Eddie. He wanted me to come alone but I convinced him to let me bring you along. He wants to cut a deal. I’ll meet you there."

"No way, Sandburg," Jim said firmly. "It could be a trap."

"It’s a warehouse, corner of 12th and Standfield. Mason’s Freight. I’ll meet you there. Come alone, Jim or we might never bust this case."

The phone went dead before Jim could mount a further protest. "Damn." The detective slammed the phone down in disgust and headed for the door. "Sorry, sir. Sandburg got a lead on Amalfi. I’ll call in."

"Do you want backup?"

Jim paused at the door, then shook his head. "Not yet. I’ll let you know."

"At least take Taylor with you."

"Sir, Sandburg said…"

"Take him. That’s an order, Jim."

Jim sighed. "Yes sir." Rushing out of the office, he tapped Zac on the shoulder as he ran past. "You’re with me. Let’s go."

0~0~0~0~0

Jim pulled the car to a halt on the corner of 12th and Standfield. He pulled his weapon from its holster and checked the clip then shook his head as Zac put his hand on the passenger door handle. "No, wait here. If I need you, I’ll call."

"Are you sure?"

Jim nodded and got out of the car. A short walk along the darkened deserted street took him to the dilapidated wire gate of the warehouse that Blair had mentioned. He sighed in relief as he saw Blair exit his own vehicle and walk slowly toward him. The consultant still looked too pale, dark circles framed his reddened eyes and he rubbed a hand along his lower back as he neared Jim.

"Jim? Where’d you park?"

"Down the street a way. Simon ordered me to bring Zac. I told him to wait in the car."

Blair grinned. "I know how that goes."

Jim frowned. "You still having pain in your back?"

"A little," Blair admitted. "No good lying to you, is there?"

"I can feel your fever from here," Jim replied. "You should be in hospital."

"I promise I’ll get it checked out as soon as we talk to Amalfi."

Jim nodded and turned his attention to the warehouse. "He’s in there. Well, someone is, anyway." He pulled his weapon once more and concealed it by his leg. "Let’s go." He threw his partner a warning look. "You stay behind me."

Blair nodded. "You got it."

The two men approached the warehouse slowly. Jim pushed open the metal door set in one side of the building and entered. "Amalfi? You in here?" He brought his gun up and aimed it toward a rickety door that creaked open slowly.

Daniel Amalfi stepped out into the open, his own weapon pointed unwaveringly at Jim. "Where’s Sandburg?"

Blair poked his head around Jim’s protective stance, regretting it instantly when Amalfi’s gun swung toward him.

"Step aside, Professor, where I can see you."

Blair swallowed dryly and nodded, moving to stand beside Jim, both hands out from his body. He winced as his steps caused sharp, hot pain to knife down into his left leg from his lower back and swallowed down the nausea that surged.

Jim looked sharply at him. "You okay?"

Blair nodded. "Let’s just get this over with." The pain throbbed in his back now and he could feel rivulets of sweat running down his neck. The only thing keeping him on his feet was his resolve to see this through. The one small comfort that he had been able to offer Michael Dodd was that they would find the person responsible for his brother’s murder. He spoke up. "You said you had some information for me."

Daniel Amalfi shook his head and stepped closer to them. He motioned at Jim’s gun. "First, we deal. Lose the gun, detective." When Jim hesitated, Amalfi’s mouth curled into an evil smile and he swung his weapon back toward Blair. "Lose the gun," he repeated. Jim tossed his weapon to one side and waited. "Okay, here’s the deal. I give you Eddie’s murderer, you let me walk out of here."

Jim shook his head. "You know I can’t do that, Amalfi. You’re wanted for the murder of Mary Collins."

Amalfi shook his head. "I didn’t kill Mary. She was already dead when I got there."

"Like we haven’t heard that one before," Blair muttered. He shut his mouth when Jim shot him an angry look.

"From what we hear, you’re the one with the motive. You didn’t kill her, you prove that to the DA." Jim turned his attention back to Amalfi.

"Like they’re going to believe me over one of their own."

"What do you mean?" Blair asked.

"Just what I said," Amalfi answered. "I was set up to take the fall. I had a deal going. I pay him a fee, he made sure I could run my business without any interference and he left Mary’s stable of girls alone. Then he put the price up. I didn’t have it so I started skimming a little off the top of my business. I figured by the time anyone found out, I’d be long gone. The boss figured it out, they shot Mary full of happy juice and she spilled the beans. I was still going to take off but I figured I’d teach the little bitch a lesson before I left. When I got there, she was dead. I didn’t need a degree to add two and two and come up with four. Eddie was in the alley next to Mary’s place, he saw me leave. Kid was so high, I didn’t think he knew his own name, so I left him alone. He was all right, you know? Anyway, he saw who killed Mary."

"So, you’re saying Eddie was murdered because he knew who killed Mary Collins. Word on the street is that it was you. The guys that worked me over," Blair indicated the bruises and cuts on his face, "told me this was a message from you to stay out of it or I’d get what Eddie got. Then Eddie turned up dead as well."

Amalfi shook his head. "Geez, Sandburg, Eddie told me you had brains. Wake up and smell the coffee here. Why do you suppose Eddie took off when Taylor fronted him about Mary’s murder? Why do you think he said he didn’t know who killed her, even though he was right there at the time?"

Blair felt the blood drain from his face and he fisted a hand into the sleeve of Jim’s jacket. He felt the detective stiffen beside him as Amalfi’s words sunk in. "Are you saying that Taylor…" He screamed in sudden agony as something hard and unyielding slammed into his back, sending him to the ground in a breathless ball of agony. Words echoed above him but he could make no sense of them through the fiery haze of pain. He writhed on the ground as fire from his back radiated outward and threatened to consume him, then flinched as a gunshot rung out close to his head. "Jim!"

"It’s okay. I’m here." Blair relaxed marginally at the sound of Jim’s voice just above him and clutched frantically at him when the detective made a move to stand up. Jim squeezed his hand. "It’s all right. Take slow breaths. You’re okay."

"How sweet." Zac Taylor stood behind Jim now, his weapon trained on both detectives. Blair looked over to where Daniel Amalfi had stood then averted his gaze, gagging. The gangster’s body lay sprawled face-down on the floor. Blood oozed from beneath his motionless body.

"Move away from your partner, Ellison."

"I should have picked it up sooner," Jim said as he stood up and began to move away from Blair, widening the gap between them, relieved to see that Taylor’s gun followed him. "At Dodd’s murder, I smelled your cologne and I smelled it at Mary Collins apartment too. I just didn’t put it together."

Taylor stepped back a little and regarded them both. "I really thought we would have made a great team, Jim. Do you know that’s really why I asked for the transfer to Major Crime. I’d seen your record and heard about your Cop of the Year awards. We could have made a killing in the protection racket. Nobody could have an arrest rate as good as yours and not have an inside edge. I thought we could combine our talents and our contacts. Now, of course, I realize you weren’t on the take. Just to satisfy my own curiosity, you want to tell me what your secret is?"

"There’s no secret," Blair ground out. "Jim’s just a good cop."

Taylor’s attention swung back to Blair. "Yes, I think you’re right. You, however, are a whole different story. You became a thorn in my side, Sandburg. I’d hoped that I’d be able to keep you out of circulation while I worked on Jim here, but no, you just wouldn’t stay away, would you? And then Jim had to go and complicate matters by falling for you. Now, my only problem is who do I do first? Should I let Blair watch the brave detective die or vice versa."

"You’re a cop, Taylor. You know you won’t get away," Jim said. "Simon will have people swarming all over the warehouse district by now."

"Oh, I don’t intend to go anywhere," Taylor answered, his blue eyes glittering coldly. "I got worried when you didn’t come back to the car. I called for backup, then entered the warehouse to find Amalfi standing over your dead bodies. He’d obviously ambushed you. I challenged him and he turned his gun on me. I had no choice but to take him out."

"All very neat," Jim said.

Zac smiled. "Thank you. Move further away from your partner, Ellison." His smile faded when Jim did not budge. "Or do I shoot him first?"

Jim stepped away slowly, one hand still cradling his ribs. Blair’s eyes widened in horror as he saw Taylor swing his gun back toward Jim, his finger beginning to tighten on the trigger. "No!" The word came out as a strangled whisper, then he recoiled a second time as a gunshot rang out and Taylor stiffened and staggered back, his hand going automatically to his chest in a futile attempt to stem the flow of blood that gushed from his chest. Taylor stared at the backup gun in Jim’s hand with wide, shocked eyes, then dropped bonelessly to the ground.

Jim was at Taylor’s side immediately, pulling the gun from his lax fingers as the man took one last shuddering breath and went limp. Jim checked his pulse, then moved quickly back to Blair’s side. "You okay?" he asked, helping his partner to sit up and lean against his chest.

"I will be," Blair managed to get out past the blackness that was crowding out his vision. "Taylor?"

Jim shook his head. "Dead."

"You?"

Jim stroked a hand gently down Blair’s cheek and smiled. "I will be when you are." He cocked his head and listened to the approaching sirens. "Backup’s on the way. Are you able to walk? "

Blair nodded and grasped Jim’s forearm tightly, levering himself slowly upright. He bit down against the moan of pain that welled in his throat at the renewed agony, causing the gash in his lip to reopen.

Jim looked alarmed as his partner leaned heavily against him and closed his eyes. "Here. Sit back down. I’ll bring the medics in here."

"No, please," Blair objected. "I’d rather not stay in here any longer. I’m okay."

Jim pulled Blair closer to him and wrapped a strong arm about the younger man’s waist. Together the two limped out to await the arrival of their backup.

0~0~0~0~0

Blair headed toward his bedroom the moment they got home, his fatigue from the past week still overwhelming him. He’d spent three days in the hospital with a kidney infection, though the first couple of days were blurry at best as his temperature soared dangerously high. One constant that he did remember throughout the whole ordeal was Jim, at his side, one large hand gripped tenaciously in his own, the other hand stroking soothingly along his forehead, Jim’s voice, soft and sweet, assuring him that he’d be all right. With his injuries finally fading, Blair had been released to Jim’s care with strict instructions to rest. Jim was determined to ensure his guide did just that.

"Blair?"

Blair stopped at the summons and turned to face his partner.

"Why don’t you go upstairs to my bedroom?" Jim suggested. "The bed’s bigger and I can finish giving you that massage."

"Okay. I’d like that."

Blair couldn’t stop the sigh of pleasure that escaped his lips as he lowered himself onto Jim’s double bed. "Oh man, Jim. That feels soooo good."

Jim smiled as he came over to the bed. "Yeah? I’m glad." He quirked an eyebrow. "Now, where were we?"

Blair reached out and pulled Jim to him, pushing him to sit beside him on the bed. "About here, I think." He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Jim’s. One warm hand wrapped itself around Jim’s neck, Blair’s fingers scratching softly through the short hair at the back of the detective’s head. The kiss was slow and deep, tongues pushing into to entwine with each other, mouths mapped and lips tasted before Jim pulled away and bestowed a kiss to the tip of Blair’s nose.

"I don’t think we got that far last time," Jim said. "Strip down to your boxers and lay down on your stomach."

Blair stood and did as instructed, adding a flirtatious wiggle as he lowered his jeans. He lowered himself gingerly to the bed, torn muscles and bruised flesh still protesting the unaccustomed movements.

Jim ran his strong hands gently down Blair’s smooth back feeling the tight muscles relax as he massaged them gently.

"Ow!"

"Oh God, I’m sorry," Jim stopped his ministrations and leaned forward to press a gentle kiss to the bruise on Blair’s upper back.

"S’okay. Was worth it to have you do that," Blair answered somewhat drowsily.

"This, you mean?" Jim asked, lowering his head to the body below him once more. He kissed and nuzzled Blair’s back, going slowly lower until he reached the boxers. Pulling them down just a little, he kissed each firm, round buttock and then went back to the massage. He grinned at Blair’s grumble of complaint. "Plenty of time for that, Blair. Let’s get you well again first."

He felt Blair sink bonelessly into the mattress as he continued to gently knead the flesh, running his hands along the broad shoulders, sweeping down Blair’s arms, using his sentinel touch to find knotted muscles and coax them into submission with pliant fingers.

His face grew dark with anger as he caught sight of the blue-black bruises on Blair’s lower back, caused by the blows from Taylor’s henchmen and Taylor’s own gun. He traced a gentle finger around the outline of each patch of discolored flesh and forced himself to take slow, deep breaths.

"Jim? You all right?" Blair’s voice was drowsy with pleasure and Jim pressed his lips to the nape of his neck. "I’m fine," he answered, smiling finally as he realized that he was indeed, fine.

"Roll onto your back now," he whispered in Blair’s ear and Blair’s eyes opened wide at the request, then the younger man smiled, an endearing, dopey smile and obediently rolled over.

Blair beckoned him closer with a finger. "Come here, you."

This time, it was Jim’s turn to obey and he did so with alacrity, lying at his lover’s side, tracing a finger over Blair’s face, learning the features he knew so well.

"Love you, Jim," Blair whispered. "Get naked with me." He opened one eye and grinned at Jim’s face. "I want to get to know you better."

Jim sat and pulled his clothes off, hesitating just briefly when he got to his boxers. He turned to find Blair already naked, his cock arching up from a lush bed of curls, his guide looking just as beautiful as Jim knew he would. He blanketed Blair’s body with his own, savoring the silky glide of their skin against each other, the heat of their groins and the musk of their arousal.

Leaning in, Jim covered Blair’s mouth with his own and sent his hands on an exploration of the beautiful body beside him. Pulling back after a long moment, he smiled at his lover. "Don’t know why I waited so long to do that," he said. "Didn’t hurt a bit."

FIN

-Lyn

-September 23rd, 2001.

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