Sacrifices - Lyn

"You were flirting with her, man."

Jim turned his attention briefly from the road to flash his partner an affronted look. "Was not."

"Were too," Blair retorted. "You sidled up to her and flashed those baby blues at her." He shook his head ruefully. "She was putty in your hands."

"She's my ex-wife, Chief," Jim replied, the corners of his mouth twitching as he tried to hold back a smile. "She was inviting us over to her place for dinner."

"I don't think 'we' came into it, Jim." Blair grew serious. "I don't think she likes me." He turned his gaze to the watery landscape outside the truck window. "I get really bad vibes whenever I'm around her." He looked suddenly at Jim. "Do you think she knows about us?"

"I hope not." At the flash of an icy glare from his lover, Jim laid one hand on Blair's denim-clad thigh. "You know it's better if we keep our relationship quiet. Christ, it was your idea in the first place."

"I know that," Blair interjected. "We've been over the pros and cons a thousand times since we got together. It's just with Carolyn being your ex..."

"That's just her way," Jim soothed. "If she didn't like you, she wouldn't have invited you to come to dinner, would she?"

Blair shook his head. "I didn't hear her inviting me, Jim. I think you read that into the conversation. I think she still has a thing for you."

Jim straightened his shoulders and steered the conversation back to its previous jocular tone. "What's not to love, huh? Got to you, didn't I?"

Blair lifted Jim's hand from where it still rested on his leg and kissed it then linked their fingers together. He smiled at his lover, happiness lighting up his blue eyes. "You did."

"We okay now?"

Blair nodded. "But you were still flirting with her."

"Was not."

"Were....Jim?" Blair's voice trailed off as he noticed the familiar tilt of Jim's head that indicated the sentinel's enhanced senses had detected something. He pulled his jacket more closely around him as Jim wound down his window and sniffed at the rain-laden air. A shiver traveled the length of Blair's spine and the anthropologist knew it wasn't just from the cold. "What is it?"

"Smoke," Jim replied. Then his hand was reaching out, automatically holding Blair back against the seat as he slammed on the brakes and turned the truck sharply into the corner they were approaching. Jim leaned forward, hunching himself over the steering wheel as he squinted through the rain-lashed windscreen at the road ahead. "Up here somewhere," he muttered.

Blair wound his own window down and studied the passing houses carefully for any sign of smoke or flames. He shot forward in his seat and reached out to anchor desperate fingers in the dashboard as Jim applied the brakes again.

"Thanks," he grumbled but the detective was already out of the truck and running toward the two-story house set behind ornate wrought-iron gates. As Blair pushed open his door and took off after him, he saw the flames licking through the roof.

"Not good," he shouted at Jim's back. He stopped as Jim half-turned and pushed the cell phone into his hand. "Call the fire department," the detective ordered brusquely.

"They're on their way."

Both men turned as a portly, gray-haired man hurried toward them, his head bent slightly against the pouring rain. "I'm the neighbor. I think they're still inside."

"Who?"

"Sarah and the baby. I tried the door. It's locked."

Jim nodded then looked at Blair. "Stay behind me, Chief," he ordered then took off at a run toward the darkened house.

Blair nodded, surprised that he hadn't been ordered to wait outside then followed his partner. In the distance he could hear the faint wail of sirens. He moved to one side as Jim aimed a well-aimed kick at the door. Two more solid whacks and the door burst inward.

Reaching out, Blair placed one hand in the small of Jim's back to ground him as the sentinel cast out his senses in an attempt to find any survivors. Blair fought not to cough as acrid smoke trickled into his nose and mouth. Losing the battle, he choked then, at a quick glance of concern from Jim, pulled his jacket up to cover his mouth.

"I'm okay." He gave Jim a small push toward the first doorway. "Find them."

Jim nodded and stepped into the room with Blair pressed up against his back. It was a living room judging by the armchairs and tables that were scattered around the area. Smoke billowed from a doorway at the rear of the room and the two men set off in that direction.

"Can you hear anything?" Blair shouted over the sound of crashing timber and crackling flame.

Jim shook his head as he hurried into the back room. "Nothing yet. Oh God!" The detective stopped short and Blair slammed into his back.

"What is it?" Blair peered around Jim's broad back somewhat fearfully and felt nausea surge at the sight before them.

A woman sat slumped over in a kitchen chair that had been pulled away from the table. She was dressed in a nightgown and her hands appeared to be bound behind her back. Her head was enclosed in a plastic bag and her mouth was open in a wide silent scream.

"Oh God." Blair's hand flew to his mouth, the bitter taste of the smoke warring with the bile that surged up his throat. He turned his head away as Jim stepped quickly toward the woman. Fighting to maintain his composure, Blair swallowed down his nausea and turned back to help as Jim picked up a knife from the kitchen bench and cut the rope binding the woman's hands. Lowering her to the floor, Jim pulled the plastic bag from her head and bent to listen for the presence of breath and a heartbeat. Blair could tell from the dejected slump of Jim's shoulders that they were too late.

A sudden harrowing thought had Blair turning to hurry back out of the room toward the stairs in the entrance hall before he was aware that he'd moved.

"Blair?"

He barely registered Jim's shout as he made his way quickly up the ominously creaking stairs to the first floor of the house. Above him, the heat was so intense that the air shimmered and the smoke billowed in black choking clouds.

He heard Jim's footsteps pound up behind him and slowed enough to allow the sentinel to take the lead once more. As they hit the top of the stairs, they were plunged into almost total darkness and Blair fisted the fingers of one hand tightly in the back of Jim's jacket.

The smoke was suffocating and Blair kept one hand clamped firmly over his mouth as they made their way along the hallway. "The baby," he managed to choke out. "Can you hear it?"

Jim stood stock-still and Blair knew he was dialing up his hearing once more. Then he pointed to a door at the far end of the short hall.

"In there," he said as he hurried forward. "Wait!" he ordered, reaching out one hand in a futile attempt to stay Blair's actions as the younger man reached past him to turn the door handle.

Blair yelped as red-hot agony surged up his arm and he cradled the burnt hand to his chest, sucking in gulps of smoke-tainted air through his clenched teeth.

"You all right?" Jim was leaning in close to him, pulling his stinging hand away to take a closer look.

Blair nodded. "Stupid," he ground out, his eyes watering at the fiery pain. "Didn't think."

Jim patted his shoulder and turned his attention back to the door. There was no time for first aid. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around the door handle before turning it and stepping into the room.

A cot sat by the window, its tiny occupant silent and still. Jim reached in and lifted the limp body, holding it close to his face for a brief moment. He turned to Blair. "Still breathing but only just."

Both men cringed as a loud thud sounded outside the room and sparks erupted from falling timber. "We've got to get out of here," Jim said. He held the silent baby out to Blair. "Can you hold the baby? I'll lead the way."

Blair nodded and took the child from Jim's arms. He opened his jacket and tucked the tiny body against his chest, the pain in his hand forgotten as they hurried from the room. Coughing and choking, their eyes streaming and blurring their sight, the two men ran back the way they'd come and hurried down the stairs. A powerful beam from a flashlight caught them unawares as they made it to the ground floor and Jim groaned and turned away as the light bit into his sensitive retinas.

Blair managed to get one hand beneath the sentinel's arm and haul him upright. He nodded his thanks as a firefighter stepped forward and took Jim's other arm, leading them quickly out into the frigid night air.

Both men collapsed to their knees on the manicured lawn, fighting for breath and wiping stinging tears from their eyes. Blair opened his jacket and laid the baby on the grass in front of him. Leaning forward, he placed a hand on the tiny chest. He felt a sob wrench its way from his raw throat when he realized the child was not breathing.

Blinking back his tears, he placed his mouth over that of the child and gave two quick small puffs. He waited a brief moment then leaned in again and continued to blow into the rosebud mouth. He stopped only when gentle hands pulled him away and he looked up into Jim's red-rimmed eyes.

"Let the paramedics take over, Chief."

Blair stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, then nodded and shifted back, allowing a dark-haired young woman to place a tiny oxygen mask over the baby's blue- tinged lips. Jim patted his shoulder. "Simon's here. You going to be okay for a minute?"

Blair nodded silently his attention riveted on the battle to save the little girl's life. Jim watched him for a moment then walked away.

0~0~0~0~0

"Detective Ellison? We've got a small problem." Jim looked up from toweling off the worst of the soot from his face and hands as a dark-skinned woman dressed in the uniform of the coroner's office walked quickly over to him.

"Problem?" He eyed her quizzically.

She smiled and looked a little discomfited. "It's Mr. Sandburg. He...well, he won't surrender the baby's body."

"I'll fix it. Thanks."

The young woman nodded and trailed behind the detective as he made his way over the lawn to his partner's side. Blair's blistered right hand had been checked and bandaged by the paramedics but he didn't appear to be in any pain as he crouched on the grass, his body hunched protectively over the baby. "Hey, Chief. The attendants are here. Why don't you let them take her now."

Blair's hands tightened slightly around the tiny body he held in his arms and he shook his head. "She's cold, Jim."

Jim reached out and uncurled Blair's finger's before taking the dead child from the young man's arms and handing her to the young woman. He stood, bringing Blair with him. He placed a finger under Blair's chin and tilted the younger man's head up to look at him. "You with me, Chief?"

Blair's eyes flickered briefly back to where the baby lay on a gurney, covered with a sheet, then slid over to Jim. He shuddered violently and sucked in a deep breath before leaning forward and resting his head briefly against Jim's chest, his arms tightening around the detective's waist.

Jim allowed the embrace for a moment, glancing around quickly to make sure no one had noticed, then pushed Blair gently away to hold him at arms' length and smiled. "You okay?"

Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah," he whispered. "Sorry about that. I saw her lying there on the grass. She looked cold."

Jim squeezed his arm. "That's okay."

"Why?" Blair's eyes were fixed once more on the gurney as it was wheeled toward the coroner's van. "Why kill the baby?"

"I don't know for sure," Jim replied.

The two men watched as firefighters picked their way slowly through the debris of the house. "Joe Casey's reputation preceded him. He was suspected of being the major connection in a drug pipeline that ran through here and on through to Canada. Narcotics have been watching him for some time now. Bernie Sorenson had been working on getting close to Sarah Casey, gaining her trust. He had a phone call from her tonight, but by the time the duty sergeant tracked him down, she'd hung up. He was on his way here to check on her when the neighbor called in the fire."

"But the baby, Jim?"

Jim shrugged his shoulders, knowing he would sound callous. "Tying up loose ends, Sandburg. There's no way he could look after a baby on the run and he'd be too easily recognizable."

Blair pulled away suddenly from Jim's side and hurried away through the drizzling rain. He made it as far as the elegant rose bushes lining the driveway before he vomited violently.

Jim stood back, allowing his partner a small measure of privacy. When the spasms eased, the detective pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and stepped up to Blair's side, placing a comforting hand on his back. He handed Blair the cloth as the younger man straightened, nodding silently at his soft whisper of thanks.

Blair shivered in the cold night air and Jim took his arm. "Come on, let's get you home. You look like you're out on your feet."

"Finals week. Always a killer." Blair paled noticeably at his own words and Jim shook his head, steering him toward the truck.

"Jim!" Simon's summons made him look back toward the house and he waited as the captain jogged over to them, one hand vainly trying to shield the rain from his head. "Sorenson wants you in on this one, seeing you found the bodies. He's waiting down at the station."

Jim looked over quickly at Blair, whose attention had been drawn back to the coroner's van as it pulled out of the driveway. "Blair needs to get home, Simon. He's a little shaken up."

"No problem," Simon readily agreed.

Jim turned back to Blair. "Are you going to be okay to drive home, Chief? I'll go with Simon. Get him to drop me home after I speak to Bernie."

Blair slowly turned his attention to Jim. "Sure. Okay."

Jim nodded and patted the younger man's shoulder, then followed Simon to his car. The captain waited until they were settled out of the rain before speaking. "Sandburg okay?"

Jim frowned as they drove past Blair, who still stood by the truck in the rain. "I hope so, sir. He's pretty wiped. Finals week and following me around. We found the baby in the nursery. The upper floor of the house was full of smoke and fumes. She was still breathing when we got to her but she died in Blair's arms."

Simon shook his head sadly. "Smoke inhalation, probably."

"Yeah. Sarah Casey was already dead. Tied to a kitchen chair with a plastic bag over her head." Both men were silent for the rest of the journey to the precinct.

0~0~0~0~0

Jim had just finished his report on Sarah and Melissa Casey's murders when there was a tap at Simon's office door and Joel Taggart poked his head inside, his normally cheerful features wearing a puzzled expression. "Jim? I just had Rafe on the phone wanting to know if you're coming back out to the Casey house to pick up your truck. He's ready to call it a night but the truck's unlocked and he didn't want to leave it unattended."

"I thought Blair..." Simon began as Jim got to his feet.

"So did I," Jim replied. "If it's all right with you and Bernie, sir, I'd better go find out what's going on."

"Bernie?" Simon looked at the narcotics officer, who nodded as he gathered up the reports.

"I've got what I need, Simon. Jim, it was good luck you were driving past when you were. It's just a pity it was too late for Sarah and the baby. There's an APB out on Casey and Cascade's locked up tight. He won't slip past us." The cop shook both men's hands and left.

"Simon, can I get you to drop me back at my truck?"

"Yeah, of course." Simon ushered the other man out of his office and downstairs to the parking garage. "You got any idea what might have happened to Sandburg, Jim?"

Jim turned a worried face toward him. "No, no idea at all."

0~0~0~0~0

Jim saw him the moment he turned the truck onto Prospect, Blair's pale features highlighted harshly in the glare of the headlights. Releasing a shaky, relieved breath, Jim parked the truck and climbed out. The observer sat hunched on the steps of the apartment building, seemingly unaware of the driving rain that had soaked him to the skin.

Jim stepped up in front of the younger man and when there was no reaction to his arrival, crouched down so that he could look Blair in the face. The younger man's complexion was ashen, his flesh icy to Jim's touch as he tilted Blair's chin up. "Blair? Hey, Chief, you with me?"

It took a few seconds and then just as Jim was beginning to panic, there was a flicker in the blue eyes and Blair seemed to shake himself out of his reverie. "Jim?" he croaked, clumsily pushing his wet hair out of his face. "W'ass wron'?"

Jim stood up and pulled on Blair's shivering arms until he was upright, supporting him as his knees buckled slightly. "How about you tell me, Chief," he said as he turned the dazed young man around and led him into the building.

Opening the door to the loft, he steered Blair straight to the bathroom and pushed him down gently to sit on the toilet lid while he stripped off the soaking wet clothes and ran warm water into the bath. Blair released a sigh of bliss as Jim helped him lower himself into the steaming water and finally looked up at his partner with something approaching normal coherency.

Jim took Blair's place on the toilet and rubbed a towel through his own wet hair. "How did you get home?"

"What?" Blair opened his sleepy eyes wider and stared at him. "I must have walked."

"Why didn't you drive the truck home like I asked you?"

"I don't know," Blair mumbled softly. "I was thinking about the baby and next thing I knew I was here. Only I couldn't find my keys or my cell phone or anything."

"All your stuff is in your backpack in the truck."

"Oh. Thanks."

Jim stood and roused the drowsy man as he saw his head nod toward his chest. "Come on, sleeping beauty. Time for bed."

"You coming?" Blair asked as Jim wrapped a robe around him and led him toward the stairs.

"In a little while. I've got a couple of calls to make." Jim sat Blair on the bed and divested him of the robe before finding clean sweats for the young man to wear.

He checked Blair's burnt hand and redressed it. He could feel Blair's temperature rapidly approaching normal, and he could see his skin pinking as it warmed. "God, Sandburg, weren't you cold out there?" he asked, knowing his lover's dislike of chilly weather.

"Numb," Blair whispered, flopping bonelessly back onto the bed and turning to his side as Jim pulled the covers to his chin. "I'm just numb, Jim. Can't feel anything right now."

Jim leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Blair's forehead before straightening and turning toward the stairs. He stopped as Blair grasped his hand.

"You don't like it when I touch you in public, do you?" Blair asked, his eyes closed, the words falling from his lips lazily.

"That's not true," Jim said immediately in a reflex manner. "Why don't we talk about it later? You're not really in any condition..." He sighed as Blair opened his eyes but did not relinquish his grip. "All right. Okay. It bothers me, all right, but not for the reason you probably think."

Blair stared at him unblinking. "Okay. Maybe, a little for the reason you think. I mean, Jesus, Sandburg, I'm a cop. A police station is like a guy's club, you know? I don't need the crap that goes with anyone finding out that I'm having a relationship with my male roommate. Neither do you. I don't want you getting harassed because of it."

"Too late."

"Is someone giving you a hard time?" Jim's eyes narrowed but Blair waved away his concern.

"It's nothing. A couple of remarks. Nothing I can't handle. No more than they've always said."

Jim considered his lover for a moment then realizing he'd get no further information went on. "I don't need anyone looking too closely at us either, Blair. We've been successful so far covering up the sentinel thing. I don't want anyone snooping around in my private life."

"Okay," Blair answered, letting go of Jim's hand and snuggling back under the bedclothes.

"Okay?" Jim was incredulous. "No arguments?"

"Nope. Your reasons are sound. I'll try to remember not to do anything like that any more when we're around others. Sometimes it's just a natural instinct, it's not something I ever thought about until now."

Jim shook his head. "Go to sleep, Blair. We'll talk more in the morning."

"Got your dad's party tomorrow night," Blair said around a yawn. "Are we still going?"

"If you think you're up to it, sure."

"I'm up to it. Night, Jim. Love you. I'm sorry about tonight. Just seeing that baby..."

Jim reached down and tousled Blair's hair. "I know. I love you too."

0~0~0~0~0

The party was a bust, Blair decided dismally. A bunch of overdressed, bored-looking people sitting around bragging about themselves. He had tried to insinuate himself into one conversation when he'd overheard an elderly gentleman talking about his exploits in Africa. Blair mentioned some anthropological research that had been done there and suddenly discovered that they'd all wandered away, except for one ancient lady wearing two hearing aids and he realized with a shock that he was boring himself. He excused himself and wandered over to the refreshment table, his gaze sweeping the room in search of Jim.

Accepting a glass of champagne from a cruising waiter, he sipped at it tentatively, then closed his eyes in bliss as he discovered that it was real champagne, not the cheap sparkling wine he and Naomi used to drink every New Year.

The lights and music were beginning to give him a headache and the unreality of the situation was overlaid with the image of a tiny dead baby that he couldn't seem to get out of his head. He'd forgotten to ask Jim her name and that thought alone brought a small sub-vocal sob bubbling up from his chest and he fought not to let the champagne make a reappearance all over his hired tuxedo.

A hand on his shoulder startled him and champagne sloshed over the rim of the glass. Blair looked up into Jim's concerned eyes and managed a wan smile as he set the glass back on the table with shaky hands.

"You all right?" Jim's voice was low but tinged with worry and Blair nodded.

"Just tired," he said. "Probably should have stayed at home and caught up on some sleep." He looked at Jim, hoping desperately that the detective would take the hint but as Jim opened his mouth to speak, a face appeared at the detective's shoulder.

Carolyn.

She smiled artificially at him. "Hi Blair. I didn't expect to see you here."

"Carolyn. It's nice to see you. You look lovely." He stretched his hand back, his fingers searching for and closing around the stem of the champagne glass.

Carolyn bowed her head slightly, accepting the compliment, her face telling him she already knew. "I hear you had a tough case last night," she replied. "Child murders are never easy but when you're not a cop..." She let the words trail off, allowing Blair to fill in the blanks.

The anthropologist sipped at the champagne, grimacing slightly at the flat warmth of it and put it back on the table. Suddenly bereft of a smart comeback, he picked at the bandage on his hand.

"Blair handled himself really well out there," he heard Jim say and he looked up and smiled, absurdly grateful for the compliment. "It was a tough call for both of us."

Carolyn smiled brightly at Jim and placed a proprietary hand on his arm. "I'm sure. I'm just about to leave but I wanted to check on our dinner date. Saturday at seven-thirty? I told Helen you were coming and she was thrilled. She can't wait to see you again."

Jim nodded and moved slightly closer to Blair so that his ex-wife's hand slid off his arm. "I'm looking forward to seeing her too. So we'll be there at seven-thirty. We'll bring some wine. Blair's introduced me to a red that I know you'll like."

Carolyn nodded but when she looked at Blair, her eyes glittered with ice and her face was a hard mask. "Actually I meant just you, Jimmy." She plastered an apologetic smile on her face. "I hope I haven't offended you but it's just a family thing. You wouldn't know anyone."

"He'd know me," Jim said, his voice a growl.

"It's fine," Blair interrupted hastily. "I'm busy on Saturday anyway." He stepped away from the table then turned to face them both. "Look, it's been a long day. I'm going to catch a taxi home."

"I'll drive you," Jim said, his hand going to his pocket but Blair raised his hand.

"No. Stay awhile. It's been a long time since you saw your dad and Steven... and Carolyn. I'll be fine."

He stared at Jim, begging him to understand and releasing a mental sigh when Jim nodded. "Carolyn, it was nice to see you again." And then because he was tired and feeling pissy he added, "Maybe you could come by the loft for dinner one night and I'll get a bottle of that wine that Jim likes so much."

Carolyn nodded and Blair could see her face tighten into a tense mask of resolve. "That would be nice. Perhaps I can get out of you who Jimmy's seeing these days. Anyone would think it was a State Secret he closes up so tight whenever I ask him her name."

Blair felt himself go hot and cold all at once and turned to leave before he really did embarrass himself by throwing up Mr. Ellison's expensive champagne all over his shoes. As he walked away, he heard Carolyn speak to Jim.

"Maybe I've got time for one more drink."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair was in bed but still awake watching the first pink hints of dawn light up the bedroom when he heard Jim pad quietly up the stairs. Neither man said anything until Jim undressed and slid beneath the sheets to spoon up close behind his lover. Blair felt soft lips press a gentle kiss to the nape of his neck.

He turned in Jim's arms and leaned in to return the kiss, smelling the spicy scent of scotch on the other man's breath.

"Sorry," Jim finally whispered. "I couldn't get away. My dad..."

Blair held his finger to Jim's lips and leaned forward until his head nestled beneath Jim's chin. He stroked a hand over a brown nipple, tracing the contours of Jim's broad, smooth chest. "It's okay," he said finally. "I'm sorry too."

Jim's fingers began a slow massage through Blair's hair, rubbing firmly against his skull and sending him floating at last toward sleep. "What for?"

"That was a cheap shot I made, inviting her over here. Do you think she knows it's me you're having a relationship with?"

"Nah." Jim's hand moved down to stroke over Blair's back, tracing over the mound of buttocks, the fingers reaching to trail down his cleft. "Want to make love?"

"No." The word puffed out in a sigh. Blair floated and tried to rein in his wandering thoughts. "I really am tired."

"Okay."

0~0~0~0~0

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee tickled at his sensitive nose and pulled him toward waking. Jim huffed out a yawn and flopped to his back, one out-flung arm encountering a warm body seated on the edge of the bed.

"Careful, big guy," Blair said, steadying the coffee cup in his hand and placing his other hand below it to catch the drips. "I don't think osmosis is the way to get your caffeine fix no matter how drunk you got last night."

"I wasn't drunk." Jim pulled himself up and settled himself against the pillows piled up behind him.

"I wasn't implying you were," Blair said, handing over a steaming cup and allowing Jim to filch a bite of his toast.

"Sorry." The apology was genuine even though it sounded sharp and obligatory. Jim sipped at the welcome brew and closed his stinging eyes as he savored it. "Not enough sleep. I'd forgotten how much Carolyn could talk."

He opened his eyes as Blair's weight shifted and saw his lover walking toward the stairs. "Something I said?"

Blair shook his head, then paused a moment before turning to face him. "I've got to leave early. I promised to proctor an exam for a friend. I should be able to get to the station by 12. Is that okay?"

Uneasiness caused Jim's stomach to flutter uncomfortably and he set the coffee aside, then swung his legs out of bed. "Blair? What's wrong?"

Blair scrubbed a hand back through his hair, dislodging the leather tie that kept it corralled. "Nothing. Just didn't sleep much. Still thinking about the baby."

Jim nodded and got to his feet, feeling the twinge of stiff muscles from alcohol-fueled sleep. "It's a tough one I know, but Bernie wants to liaise with me and I'm going to need your input, if you think you're up to it."

Blair smiled, his eyes still shadowed but looking pleased at the praise. "I'll be fine. What was her name?"

"What?" Jim paused from wrapping a robe about his naked body.

"The baby. What was her name?"

"Melissa."

Blair nodded and descended the stairs. Five minutes later as Jim relished the hot water soothing his muscles and washing away the stench of old booze and Carolyn's pervasive perfume, he heard the door slam and the apartment became silent.

0~0~0~0~0

"Hey, Jimmy."

Jim looked up from his mountain of paperwork and bit back a retort at Carolyn's diminutive of his name. Once he'd considered the nickname sweet and endearing, now it merely grated on nerves still raw from lack of sleep and harrowing autopsy reports.

"Hi." Jim closed the file he was reading and smiled up at his ex-wife. Carolyn grinned back, her red hair soft, her makeup stylish, the white silk shirt she was wearing straining against pert breasts.

She reached forward and rested her fingers on his forearm, rubbing gently. "You want to take me out to lunch, for old time's sake?"

"Look, can I take a rain-check? I'm only halfway through the autopsy report on the Casey murders." Jim looked past her to the clock set high on the bullpen wall. "Shit! Is that the time? Sandburg promised to be here by 12."

"Look, Jimmy, I'm really trying here," Carolyn began as she slipped from the edge of the desk and faced her ex-husband.

Jim was nonplussed. "Trying what? Carolyn, I'm not sure what you're getting at here..." He lowered his voice and leaned in closer as Rhonda walked in with a stack of files in her arms. "...and I'm not sure this is the right place to be discussing it."

Carolyn flushed and nodded a greeting to Rhonda. "You accepted my invitation to dinner with Helen and Fred. I thought maybe you were thinking along the same lines as me, that we could give it another chance. You and me, I mean."

Jim felt the air leave his lungs. He stood and wrenched his jacket from the hook behind him. "I'm sorry. I think you got the wrong impression. I accepted the invitation because Helen is your sister and because, well, I like her and Fred. They're nice people. But, if you thought there was a chance of reconciliation. I'm sorry. I've already told you I'm seeing someone else."

He touched her arm, wanting to convey his apology with more than words but she snatched it away and backed up a step, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Who is it? Anyone I know?"

"No, nobody from here," Jim answered.

He turned and met dark blue eyes taking in the scene from the doorway. "Sandburg! About time you got here." His voice wavered and Jim tried to steady it. "Let's go. I want to go talk with Sarah Casey's neighbor again."

He turned back to Carolyn, seeing her tension increase as she gazed at Blair. "Look, we'll talk later, all right?"

Carolyn nodded mutely, jaws clenching at Blair's shrug and wave. Jim rushed out, striding toward the elevator and punched the button brutally. "Where the fuck have you been?" he asked, rounding on the younger man as they entered the blessedly empty car. "I thought you said you'd be here at 12."

Blair shrugged and hefted his backpack higher on his shoulder. "I got caught up in a question time with a couple of students. It's finals, they're nervous. What's going on, Jim?"

Jim stared at the shiny instrument panel and forced himself to calm down. What exactly was he so pissed about anyway?

"Sorry," he said finally, reaching out to squeeze Blair's shoulder, savoring the touch of Blair-warmth beneath his hand. He stepped closer and breathed in his lover's delicious herbal, musky scent, feeling it calm and center him. "Carolyn has been thinking we should give our relationship another try."

At Blair's wide eyes, he smiled, feeling foolish at his overreaction. "Easy, Chief. I knocked her back. I let her down gently. I just got a little edgy when she asked who I was seeing."

"What did you tell her?" Blair's hand stole to Jim's rump, the ghosting fingers firing his arousal.

"Nothing. I didn't tell her anything."

0~0~0~0~0

Carolyn's attention was pulled away from Jim and Blair by a word from Rhonda. She looked over to see the captain's secretary standing in front of her desk, a black purse in one hand.

"Sorry. What?"

"I wondered if you'd like to go for coffee. A couple of the girls from Records discovered this new café that just opened down the street. It's been ages since we got together."

Carolyn watched Jim and Blair enter the elevator and pasted a bright smile on her face. "I'd like that," she replied. "Let's go."

The coffee was indeed good, the muffins better and Carolyn realized she'd been so caught up in her career lately that she'd forgotten how to make small talk. She and Rhonda settled at a small table for two by the window and she stared silently out the window, idly thinking that the day was as gray as her mood. A couple of other women from the PD drifted in and they exchanged pleasantries before seating themselves at an adjacent table.

Rhonda had just finished describing the new color scheme she'd picked for her apartment when a strident voice rang out from the next table.

"So, who thinks they're doing it?" Carolyn looked over to see Margie Evans glance briefly at her then lean back in toward the other women at the table. "Ellison and Blair. Have you seen the way they are around each other? Always touching, whispering to each other. And with Blair's looks, I mean who wouldn't be attracted to him."

An urgent whisper from the woman sitting opposite Margie had her flashing a triumphant smile in Carolyn's direction before she shrugged and picked up her coffee cup. "It's not like it's a secret or anything, Deb. Everybody knows."

She wasn't aware that she'd left the cafe until Rhonda took her arm and began to lead her up the street toward the police station, apologizing profusely.

"I'm so sorry you had to hear that," Rhonda was saying. "That Margie is such a moron."

Carolyn pulled Rhonda to one side out of the pedestrian traffic and under a brightly colored shop awning. "You knew?" she whispered hoarsely. "You knew and you didn't tell me?"

Rhonda shook her head. "It's just office talk, Carolyn. You know better than to take notice of gossip, especially when it comes out of Margie's mouth."

Carolyn stared at her. "Who's Jim seeing then?"

Rhonda looked away and stared out at the street. "They haven't come out or anything," she finally said. "I don't think they realize that anyone knows. It's just obvious to anyone who sees them together."

Carolyn shook her head. "I know Jim. I was married to the man, for God's sake." She pulled her arm from Rhonda's grasp and stormed back toward the precinct. "He's not gay."

0~0~0~0~0

Jim dropped Blair back at the university after they had interviewed Sarah Casey's neighbor. Bert Ryan had lived next door to the Casey's for three years. He'd spoken now and then with Sarah as they'd tended their gardens and had even given her some cuttings from his own rose bushes of which he was very proud.

"What about Mr. Casey?" Jim asked.

Bert rolled his eyes. "The less I saw of him, the happier I was. I couldn't understand what Sarah saw in him. The man was rude, pompous and nasty. She had bruises on her face a few times. Said she fell." He shook his head sadly. "As for that sweet little girl. My wife Martha doted on her. Whenever she knitted a sweater for our own granddaughter, she'd knit a matching one for Melissa." The old man paused a moment and bent to cut a deep- red rose. "What kind of father kills their own child?"

"We're still waiting on Forensics and other tests to come in, Mr. Ryan," Jim replied. "Unless you saw something, we have no proof against Casey at this time."

"He left about a half-hour before I saw the flames," Bert said. "I didn't see anybody else arrive or leave after he'd gone."

Jim nodded. "All right. Thank you, Mr. Ryan. If there's anything else, we'll be in touch."

The detective followed his silent partner back to the truck. "I need to go back to the station and see if Carolyn's got anything for me from the murder scene."

Blair nodded. "Okay. I have to go back to Rainier and finish up with my students. My car's there. I'll see you at home."

"Are you sure you can handle this, Blair?" Jim's hand stole over and enclosed his lover's where it rested on his thigh.

Blair nodded, then turned and smiled at Jim. "Yeah. I just want to help you nail this bastard as fast as we can, so drop me off and get onto it, Detective." He leaned and pressed a quick kiss to Jim's lips then sat back just as quickly. "Sorry. I promised not to do that," but Jim pulled him back into an embrace.

"It's okay, there's no one around." He kissed Blair's cheek then released him with a sigh and started the truck. "You can take up where you left off tonight."

"After dinner?"

"Depends on my appetite when I get home."

0~0~0~0~0

Jim slammed down the phone receiver and cursed loudly. "What part of urgent didn't you understand, Carolyn? For Christ's sake!"

He threw the Casey file back onto the desk then stood and pulled his jacket from the hook behind him.

"Problem?" Simon Banks was exiting his office as he spoke, a fat cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth.

Jim scrubbed at his weary eyes. "I'm waiting on the Forensics report. Carolyn said some of the evidence was compromised so she won't be able to get it to me until tomorrow."

"Do you want me to talk to her?"

"If she doesn't have the evidence she doesn't have it," Jim answered as he trailed Simon out to the elevator. "It's just while I'm sitting here on my ass chasing compromised evidence, Casey could be in Mexico or Canada or fucking anywhere."

"Cascade's sewn up tight, Jim. He won't get past the roadblocks."

"I hope you're right."

Simon pressed the button for the underground parking garage. "Everything all right between you and your ex? Things seem to be a little tense of late."

Jim leaned back against the wall of the elevator and closed his eyes. "Carolyn thought we could give our relationship another try. I told her I was seeing someone else. I guess she's still pissed at me."

"Are you suggesting she's withholding the forensic evidence out of spite?" Simon stepped out of the elevator and walked toward his car.

"No, of course not." Jim stood in front of his truck and fished his keys from his pocket. "I just feel like my hands are tied, that's all."

"You want to head over to Murphy's for a beer on the way home?"

Jim thought about it. It was a tempting offer. "No. Thanks, anyway, Simon. Blair's cooking dinner."

"Jim..."

"Mm?"

The captain waved the comment away and headed toward his own vehicle. "Nothing. See you in the morning."

0~0~0~0~0

As the phone rang once more, Blair fumbled for the receiver without taking his eyes off the notebook in front of him. If this was another phantom call...

"Blair Sandburg. Hello? Shit!"

The anthropologist slammed the receiver back into its cradle with rather more force than was necessary and pushed his chair back from the desk. He rotated his neck a few times and sighed as muscles loosened and joints popped. He'd have to ask Jim for a massage tonight. A small smile twitched Blair's lips. A massage and some mind-blowing sex. That had to be the best way in the world to forget about the day to day grind of study, teaching and trying to fit in time to help Jim and ...

He glared at the phone as it rang again. And phantom phone calls. Five so far today. He must have really pissed off one of his students. Probably Tommy Nitschke. The kid had been in his office the day before begging for a better grade so he didn't get thrown off the football team.

Standing up, Blair ignored the ringing phone and picked up his jacket and his backpack. He'd stop by the market on the way home and pick up some steaks for dinner. Everyone knew that the way to Jim Ellison's heart was through his stomach.

He'd just closed and locked his door when two students came running up the hallway toward him. "Mr. Sandburg? I think you better get out to the parking lot."

"What's going on?"

The students hustled Blair up the stairs. "Someone trashed your car. It's a real mess, man."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair had hunched himself into a corner of the truck, his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms clasped about his legs. Jim thought about asking him to take his feet off the upholstery but one look at his lover's melancholy face had him biting his tongue.

The younger man hadn't elaborated much on the phone when he'd asked Jim to pick him up, saying only that a prank had gotten out of hand and his car was no longer roadworthy. The anthropologist was a master of understatement Jim decided when he pulled into the parking lot at Rainier.

The Volvo was a mess. Splatters of white and black paint marred the car from the roof down as though someone had simply stood on top and poured the paint out of a can. Long scratches marked the bodywork in several places and the front window had been smashed in.

Nobody, it seemed had heard or seen a thing. The fact that Blair had parked in the farthest lot because everything else was full didn't help where witnesses were concerned. The majority of the people who parked there had already left for the day.

The detective looked over at his partner as Blair let out a heavy sigh and shifted so that he was now seated sideways facing the window.

"You want to stop and get some takeout for dinner?" Jim asked.

Blair shrugged. "Whatever."

When nothing more was forthcoming, Jim reached out and squeezed the other man's shoulder. "I'm sorry about your car, Chief. It'll be good as new in a couple of days."

"I don't know how I'm going to pay for the repairs."

"We'll figure something out." Jim expected an argument but Blair simply nodded.

"Thanks."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair preceded Jim into the loft and headed straight for the stairs to the bedroom after dropping his jacket on the couch.

"I'll put the food out," Jim offered, depositing a plastic bag containing takeout containers on the dining table.

Blair stopped halfway up the stairs and looked over his shoulder. "Actually, I'm not very hungry. Sorry."

"Maybe later." The detective poked desultorily through a bowl of chicken and cashews before deciding that his own appetite was gone and trudged upstairs to the bedroom.

Blair sat on top of the covers, still fully dressed, staring forlornly into space. Jim sat beside him and reached for the hem of Blair's tee shirt.

"Lift up, Blair."

The younger man did as instructed and Jim continued to strip him then urged him under the bedclothes. Pulling the blanket down to Blair's waist, Jim opened the dresser drawer and reached for the massage oil that his lover liked so much. "Turn over."

After straddling the other man's body, he poured a small amount of oil into his cupped hand then stroked it across Blair's back. He swept the lotion up over the sturdy shoulders that were rock-hard with tension and used his strong fingers to knead the muscles until they began to loosen under his ministrations.

Only then did he move his hands downward, massaging firmly down the center of Blair's spine and outward to his waist and flanks, then scooting back so that he straddled Blair's legs and allowed his hands to stroke over his lover's buttocks. He ghosted down the crevice of Blair's ass but kept the touch clinical, non-sexual, wanting this to be a healing touch. Finally, he rubbed the oil down each leg in turn, taking care to massage the sole of each foot.

He urged Blair over onto his stomach, pleased to see his lover's already boneless condition and repeated the massage over the lightly-haired chest, ghosting across abdominal muscles that twitched at his touch and down to Blair's thighs, skirting the dark patch of curls at his lover's groin.

Blair's erection was half-hard in contrast to his relaxed state by the time Jim had finished and the older man took a moment to trail a gentle finger down the awakening shaft. As he pulled away, Blair stopped him and pulled his hand back to rest on his cock.

"Please?" he whispered.

At Jim's nod, he rested his head back on the pillow and sighed as his lover's firm hand gripped his erection. Jim began to stroke slowly at first, speeding up only when Blair began to arch up and thrust into his fist. He could feel himself getting hard at the sight, smell and sound of Blair's arousal and reached down to cup and roll Blair's tight balls.

He pushed at Blair's thighs, encouraging the other man to open his legs and then trailed his fingers down his lover's perineum. The gentle touch tipped Blair over the edge and he came with a soft groan as he pushed himself up into Jim's stroking fist.

Blair lay silently for a moment as he calmed. "Thank you," he said finally. "I needed that."

"My pleasure," Jim answered as he pressed a chaste kiss to Blair's lips then slipped off the bed to retrieve some wipes.

"What about you?"

Jim shrugged and smiled. "Maybe later, if you feel up to it."

Blair smiled back at last and Jim felt the knots in his stomach begin to untie. He indicated the stairs as he handed the clothes to Blair. "I'm going to call the station and see if they got any prints off your car." He broke off as the phone downstairs rang. "That might be them now. Get some rest."

Blair nodded and turned obediently onto his side. Jim watched him a moment then hurried downstairs to answer the phone.

"Ellison."

"Jimmy. It's Carolyn."

"Carolyn? What are you phoning about this late?" Jim glanced at his watch, surprised to see that it was only 8p.m.

"Well, you were pretty angry this morning, so I've been hustling the techs ever since. Can you come back to the station?"

"Now?"

"Yes, now. You were the one in such a hurry for this information, Jim. What's the matter? Got a hot date?"

Alarm bells rang at her blatantly hostile tone but Jim pushed the notion aside and assured her he'd be there in twenty minutes. He climbed the stairs and looked in on Blair who lay sprawled on his stomach, taking up three-quarters of the bed, looking exhausted and sated and snoring softly. Jim didn't want to wake him up so he scribbled a note and left it propped against the alarm clock.

0~0~0~0~0

"Caro? What have you got?"

Jim's ex-wife looked up and scowled ever so slightly. She pushed back slightly from her desk and picked up a folder from the desk, holding it out to him.

"Fingernail scrapings taken from Sarah Casey. It looked as though she'd put up quite fight, so Dan thought it was worth a shot. DNA matches Joe Casey's. We found evidence of a fire accelerant used in the house. The chemicals match some high-powered fuel found in Joe Casey's shed and the can had his fingerprints all over it."

Jim nodded and took the offered file. "Thanks. This is great. All we've got to do now is catch the bastard."

"Yeah."

"Look, I'm sorry I was so pissed with you this morning. This case has really got to me and I just want to get the guy. Sandburg's still having nightmares about the baby." He swallowed convulsively as he realized exactly how that sounded. "I've got to go." He held the folder aloft. "Thanks for this. I appreciate you putting in the extra time."

He was almost out the door before she spoke. "Is it true what everyone's saying?"

Cursing himself for an idiot, Jim turned to face her, schooling his features into inquisitive calm. "What would that be?"

"That you're sleeping with your partner?" Carolyn closed her eyes briefly and when they opened again, they showed steely resolve. "That you and Sandburg are lovers?"

She barely puffed the last word out but it hung in the air between them, heavy and ugly. Jim took a step back into the office, closed the door and did what he'd made Blair swear they'd never do.

"Yes."

She recoiled as if he'd slapped her and he winced at the pain he saw in her face. "How could you?" she spat. "How could you betray our marriage, our sacred vows like that?"

"I didn't betray anything, Caro. Our marriage was over long before Blair came along. You want to know something else? I love him more than life and our commitment is for life."

"Why admit it now?"

Jim sighed. He suddenly felt very tired. "Because I don't want Blair to be kept hidden in a corner of everyone's filthy minds like some dirty little secret."

Carolyn's eyes narrowed. "Isn't that what he is? Jimmy's dirty little secret?"

Jim spun on his heel and fumbled with the door handle before finally turning it, pushing the door open and stepping out into the corridor. "Don't call me Jimmy," he said, not bothering to turn around. "I never liked it."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair was still sleeping deeply when Jim arrived home. The detective sat in front of the droning TV and drank a beer before climbing the stairs to his bed. Blair rolled over to face him when he climbed under the covers and snuggled in close, one hand coming to rest on Jim's chest, his head nestled beneath Jim's chin.

Jim lay awake and watched dawn break through the skylight, absently stroking circles of comfort on Blair's back, finally drifting into a troubled doze. He awoke to a hot mouth on his cock and gentle fingers that played delicately with his balls.

Heaving a sigh and tangling his fingers in Blair's long curls, Jim tried to stay his unwilling hips and not arch up into the warm wet cavern. He moaned as Blair licked along the thick vein in his shaft and swirled his talented tongue over the cap of his cock, and then sucking him back in, hummed softly as he stroked down over Jim's perineum with his hand.

Jim reached up and pulled Blair up for a deep kiss then turned them so that he had the upper hand. Blair lay beneath him, his hair a wild halo around his head, his eyes dark with passion. Reaching one arm out to the bedside table, Blair picked up a condom and a tube of lube and held it out to his lover. "I owe you one," he said huskily.

Jim accepted the items and bent down to lap gently at Blair's nipple, tonguing it to hardness before kissing his way across the soft hair on Blair's chest to do justice to the other tiny peak. Blair arched up at the sensation, his hands reaching to cup Jim's skull and guide his lips where he wanted them. Jim allowed him that small freedom for a short time then made his way downward with lips and fingers.

He scratched gently through the lush pubic curls and then scraped a gentle nail along Blair's weeping erection. Straddling his lover's hips, Jim leaned to suckle the straining shaft until Blair's writhing alerted him to the fact that his lover was close to the edge.

He sat up and pulled the condom on then slicked up his fingers, preparing his lover with tongue and digits before placing his aching hardness at Blair's opening. The younger man gripped his legs behind his knees and lifted them, opening himself fully to his lover's gaze and ministrations. Jim pushed in gently, taking time to allow Blair's channel to stretch before sheathing himself completely in the velvety warmth.

He began to stroke lazily at first but soon Blair's moans and pleas fired him and he grasped the younger man by his ankles and used them as an aid to thrust more firmly into Blair's ass. Blair reached down and gripped his own erection, pumping it rapidly as his orgasm overtook him. He arched up onto his shoulders, taking Jim further in and then his clenching channel ripped Jim's finish from him and he came with a violent shudder, groaning out Blair's name.

"Jesus, Blair," Jim said when he could finally talk. "You're gonna have to give me some warning before you do that. I'm not sure the old heart can stand that kind of a shock anymore."

"Bullshit," Blair replied amiably, reaching up to pull Jim down to him and depositing a good morning kiss on his lover's lips. "You're not that old. Besides, adrenaline is good for the heart and I owed you one from last night."

"Not that old, huh? Thank you."

Blair climbed out of the bed and headed for the shower. "Elderly, yes but not old, man." His loud guffaw of laughter grew louder as Jim tossed a pillow down the stairs toward his head. "You'd better pick that up, Ellison."

Jim grinned and settled back on his remaining pillows. His argument with Carolyn the night before came to mind and abruptly ruined his happy mood. Fuck! Flinging aside the covers, he pulled on his bathrobe and stomped down the stairs, his outlook suddenly as bleak as the weather outside.

Somehow he was going to have to tell Blair that Carolyn knew about them. Padding into the kitchen, he set the water boiling for coffee then walked over to the bathroom and hammered on the door, harder than he needed to. "Don't be too long in there, Chief. I've got to get to work."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair slammed the truck door after he exited and was about to stomp off when Jim called him back. He thought of ignoring him but knew he couldn't. Turning, he walked around to the driver's side and looked up at the detective.

"What?"

Jim's hand rested on the edge of the window, the fingers drumming nervously. "I'm sorry. She got me angry and I just wanted to make her understand. I know it's no excuse especially after the way I've been telling you to stop touching me in public."

Blair reached out a hand and stilled Jim's fidgeting fingers. "I'm sorry I lost my temper. We'll figure it out, Jim. Look, I'm late. I've got to go but we'll talk tonight, okay. You may as well speak to Simon about it before he hears it on the PD grapevine. You want me there this afternoon?"

Jim's fingers curled around Blair's cold ones. "Yeah, need a ride?"

"No, it's fine. I'll catch the bus or something. I should be able to get there by 2, okay?"

Jim smiled but it didn't reach his eyes. "Okay."

Blair stood and watched until the truck turned onto the main road out of the university parking lot then trudged toward Hargrove Hall.

0~0~0~0~0

Jim knocked on the captain's office door rather tentatively, feeling more nervous than he'd ever been in his life.

"Come in."

He turned the knob at Simon's summons and opened the door then stood flat-footed in the doorway, suddenly tongue-tied. Simon looked up from his ever-present stack of reports.

"What is it, Jim?"

"I, um, need to talk to you about something, sir," Jim began. He flailed for a way out. "Look, you're busy. I can come back another time."

Simon threw his pen onto the desk and pushed his chair back. "Come on in. I could use an excuse to get away from these budget reports for a few minutes. What's on your mind?"

Jim stepped into the office turning briefly to ensure he pushed the door shut behind him. He paced the length of the room a few times, awkward words tumbling through his mind as he tried to figure out the best way to begin. Somehow 'Simon, I'm fucking my roommate' just didn't seem to cut it.

"Jim?" Simon's gruff voice drew him back to the present and he sighed heavily then dropped into the seat opposite the captain.

"I've got a problem. It's a personal one but...it might not stay personal for much longer."

Simon regarded him steadily for a moment. "Coffee?"

"Oh, yeah. That would be good."

Simon poured two cups then sat back down and cradled the warm mug in his hands. "Okay. Get on with it."

Jim nodded. "I don't know if you've noticed but Carolyn has been making some overtures about her and me getting back together."

Simon's face broke into a grin. "That's what's got you all riled up? Look, Jim I know how the department feels about husbands and wives working together but Carolyn's in another department entirely. I can't see it's going to be a problem... What?"

Jim was shaking his head, one hand up as though to silence Simon's words. "I told Carolyn I wasn't interested because I'm seeing someone else. Have been for about three months now."

"You have? You sly old dog! Who is it? Do I know her?"

"Yes sir, you do. It's Blair, Simon."

Simon's coffee cup tipped but he didn't seem to be aware of the liquid that poured onto his desk and from there to his lap. "Did you just say what I thought you said?"

"Yes, sir." Jim cleared his throat. "Blair and I are lovers."

"Holy shit!"

"I thought you might see it like that." Jim pulled a handful of tissues from a box on the desk and began to blot up the coffee.

Simon stood and walked to the window. "I didn't think you were..."

"Gay?" Jim finished for him. "Neither did I, and it's certainly the last thing I expected from Sandburg. I don't know that I am, although Blair tells me he's bisexual. He says he just didn't consider it important enough to mention."

Jim's face softened and a small smile touched his lips as he remembered that conversation. "It wasn't, still isn't important. I don't know, Simon. I don't feel attracted to other men and I still appreciate a beautiful woman as much as the next guy. Blair thinks that maybe it's a ..."

"Sentinel thing." This time Simon finished the sentence. He turned and glared at the detective. "Damn it, Jim. I told you I didn't want to know about any of this sentinel stuff. It's too weird, too far out there for me. I'd heard some rumors but I thought that's all they were. Why come to me with this now?"

Jim scrubbed a hand through his buzz cut. "Carolyn knows, as, it appears, does most of the department. Well, at least there's been some talk," he amended at Simon's stunned look. "Carolyn heard rumors, said some things I didn't like and I told her the truth. Blair thought you should hear it from me before the rumor mill caught up with you."

"I appreciate Sandburg's common sense. You know if the powers that be find out about this..."

"Which is why we've been keeping it a secret. Look, Simon, let me talk to Carolyn again, ask her to keep it to herself. Let it all blow over. Blair and I will be more careful around each other. No one ever needs to know. I couldn't stay on if Blair has to leave. I can't do this on my own. Blair's the one who makes this sentinel thing work. Before he came along, I was ready to put myself in a rubber room or eat my gun."

"I don't want to lose you either, Jim," Simon finally said. "Or Sandburg for that matter, though if you tell him that I will disavow any knowledge of it." He sighed and leaned forward to pick up a cigar from his desk. "Talk to Carolyn. If she gives you a hard time, let me know. I can be fairly persuasive when I want to be. I'll do my best to keep your...secret but if it comes out, you're going to have to wear it."

"I understand." Jim turned and opened the door.

"Having said that," Simon continued. "I will back you every inch of the way as one of my men and as my friend."

Jim looked back and smiled. "Thank you, Simon."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair trudged slowly down the stairs to his basement office. The argument with Jim weighed heavily on his mind and he felt a tremendous guilt that perhaps his overt actions toward Jim in front of others may have been the catalyst for the rumors now sweeping the station.

Not rumors, he corrected himself. Truths. Secrets. The one secret he didn't want to keep was that of his love for Jim but he'd been willing to do it. Close-up scrutiny of their personal lives could so easily be followed by the discovery of Jim's senses and so Blair hugged the secret to himself and learned to take pleasure in the private knowledge that Jim loved him. It would never be distasteful or dirty to Blair. Love was a good and powerful thing. Naomi had taught him that.

Something crunched under his foot and he looked down curiously, then stopped in surprise at the scattering of glass shards in his path.

"Blair?"

Blair turned as someone called to him. Shirley Williams came out of the office up the corridor from his, her round face creased into a frown. "I've been trying to call you, Blair. Your cell phone is switched off."

"Oh, sorry. I was in a rush this morning. What's going on, Shirley?"

She walked past him and led the way, talking as she went. "I heard a crashing noise just as I was coming in this morning. It came from here." She stopped in front of Blair's office and he stopped and gaped in shock at the shattered glass window of his door. "I'm sorry. I've called the campus police."

Blair moved forward slowly and stepped past her into his office. "Shouldn't you wait for Suzanne to get here?"

Blair shook his head as he gazed around his office, relieved to see that everything appeared to still be in place and undamaged. "It's okay. I won't touch anything."

More footsteps echoed up the corridor and he smiled a weak greeting at Suzanne Tomaki, the head of campus police.

"Blair? What happened?"

Blair shrugged. "I just got here. Shirley heard something smash and..." His voice trailed off and he waved a hand at the devastated door. "I'm not going to be able to replace that," he said softly. "It was a gift."

"I'm so sorry, Blair," Shirley said. "The etching was beautiful. Your detective friend gave it to you, didn't he?" Blair nodded mutely.

"Did you see anyone hanging around or acting suspiciously?" Suzanne asked Shirley.

"No, not really. Someone was disappearing up the stairs just as I arrived to investigate the noise. I called out to her but she kept on going."

"It was a woman?"

Shirley shrugged. "I couldn't swear to it but it looked like a woman."

"Can you give me a description?"

"Sure, for what it's worth. Short, slender, wearing black pants and a dark coat. She had her back to me so I didn't see her face and she was almost at the top of the stairs by that time. I'm pretty sure it was a woman though." Shelley shrugged apologetically.

Suzanne turned her attention to Blair. "Can you think why anyone would want to do this, Blair? The damage seems to be only to your door. Can you tell if anything's been stolen from your office?"

"I didn't want to touch anything but everything looks like it's still here." He rubbed a hand through his hair. "I don't understand it at all. First my car, now this."

"Your car?"

"My car got paint smeared all over it and the windshield smashed in the far end parking lot the other day."

Suzanne nodded. "Of course, we got a memo from the PD about it. We put extra patrols through there but nothing's happened since. Look, I'll put a call into the PD and ask them to come down and fingerprint the door. See if we come up with anything. Do you want me to phone Jim?"

"No. I'll do it," Blair answered. "Thanks, Suzanne, Shirley." Shuffling forward slowly, Blair slung his backpack on the floor and dropped tiredly into one of the seats in the corridor. It was not even nine o'clock and he was already exhausted.

0~0~0~0~0

Blair decided against phoning Jim about the office door, seeing as he was heading over to the station when he finished at the university. Taking advantage of the technicians needing space to fingerprint the door and the surrounding area, Blair took the opportunity to pick up some research material at the library and go to the station early. The incidents of the last few days had him feeling edgy and he wanted nothing more right now than to bask in Jim's reassuring presence.

He was disappointed when he arrived at the bullpen to be told by Rhonda as she hurried out the door on her way to a late lunch that Jim and several others were out chasing a possible sighting of Casey.

Blair felt his apprehension grow at the news. As much as Jim's control over his senses had improved in leaps and bounds and he rarely suffered zone outs any more, Blair liked to think it was because he was there guiding and grounding the sentinel. He calmed a little when he learned that Brown, Rafe and Bernie Sorenson were with Jim but knew he wouldn't relax completely until they walked back in the door.

"Sandburg? Can I see you for a minute?"

Blair looked up from his perusal of the Casey file as Simon called to him. Nodding, he stacked the case notes together and placed them back in Jim's inbox then walked into the captain's office, closing the door behind him.

"Problem, Simon?"

"I hope not. Sit down, Blair."

Blair smiled nervously. "Must be bad if you're calling me by my first name." A sudden terrifying thought had his stomach dropping to his feet and he sat forward, gripping the edge of the desk. "Jim's all right, isn't he?"

"As far as I know. There was no sign of Casey but they're checking out the surrounding area and doing a door knock. Casey's ex-wife lives in the area so it was a solid tip." He paused for a moment. "Jim spoke to me about your relationship with him. Is there anything you want to add to what he's already told me?"

"Like what?"

"How long do you think you can keep this a secret?"

Blair smiled wryly. "Well, now, I suppose that depends on Carolyn, doesn't it? Did Jim tell you about his conversation with her?"

Simon nodded and toyed with his coffee cup. "Look, Sandburg, I told Jim I'd protect the two of you as much as I can but you have to know that most cops aren't exactly enamored with the idea of a gay officer in their midst."

"Neither is most of society."

Simon nodded slowly. "Just be careful, okay? You have any problems, anyone says or does anything you let me know. All right?"

Blair stood. "Thanks. I appreciate your support and I know Jim does too."

"I just wish it hadn't come to this. The sentinel stuff was enough on its own. This just complicates everything. I've had to do some pretty fancy footwork to keep you here this long. Ride-along privileges are usually only 90 days. How long have you been here now?"

"Almost a year. Look, Simon, regardless of what happens, I'll never regret a minute of this." Then quickly, before Simon could misinterpret what he was talking about, Blair added, "Loving Jim is the easiest thing I've ever done."

"Sandburg!"

Jim's voice bellowed through the bullpen and Blair raised an eyebrow. "Guess they're back. And it doesn't sound like they were successful."

He opened the door and stumbled into Jim who was pulling the door open from the other side. "Whoa, slow down, big guy. Where's the fire?"

Blair dropped his hand from Jim's chest as he steadied himself, looking around quickly to see if anyone had noticed the touch. Jim was still frowning at him and then abruptly wheeled around and stomped back to his desk. "What the fuck is all this about, Chief?"

"What this?" Blair stepped up beside the detective and gaped at the mess on the table. The numerous notes and reports from the Casey folder were strewn over the surface, several sheets of paper lay on the ground and an upturned coffee cup - Blair's - lay on its side on the desk, it's sticky, congealing contents swamping several case photos and Jim's typewritten report of the murders. "Shit! Who did this?"

"It's your coffee cup and you usually sit at my desk," Jim began. "Did you get the Casey file out of my inbox?"

"Well, yeah," Blair replied as he reached forward to pick up the wet papers. He looked around for a box of tissues. "I wanted to take another look through. See if we might have missed something then Simon asked to see me and..." His eyes widened in disbelief at the darkening anger on his partner's face. "Jim! I didn't do this. I put them back when I left. I swear. My coffee cup was empty."

He took a step away from the desk, heedless of the dark liquid that dripped from the paper onto his jeans.

"No one else has been here, Sandburg," Jim said. "And I've seen your office and your study at home."

"This is different," Blair stammered. "This is police work, your work."

"Look, no offence, Chief but half the time I don't think you're even aware that you're making a mess." Jim gave a heavy sigh and began to gather up the papers. "We've got copies of most of this stuff but I hadn't finished my report. I'll have to type it up again. Just be a little more careful next time, okay?"

Blair shook his head in exasperation. "Jim, I didn't..." He broke off, realizing the detective's attention was on the scattered file and not him. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "Any news on Casey?"

Jim shook his head as he sat down in front of his computer and powered it up. "No, but his ex was nervous as hell. I'm pretty sure he's been there. Brown and I are going to stakeout the place tonight. It's not likely he'd go back there but it's worth a shot. I'm pretty certain that he's still in Cascade."

"You want me to come with you?"

"Nah, it'll probably be a bust anyway." Jim's eyes stayed on the computer screen. "I'm sure you've got plenty of work to do without me dragging you away from it again. Don't wait up. It could be a long night."

"Okay." Blair retrieved his backpack from the floor by Jim's leg. "I've got to go pick up my car. I'll see you at home."

"Shit! I forgot about your car. You need a ride?" Jim finally glanced at him. "I could see if Rafe can run you over there?"

Blair backed away toward the door. "No, it's fine. It's not far and it's a nice day for a walk." He stood at the doorway for a moment and watched Jim immerse himself in his work. "I'll catch you later then."

Jim held up a hand in a brief farewell and Blair turned and fled down the stairs.

0~0~0~0~0

By the time he hit the street, walking off his anger seemed to be a good idea and Blair set off at a brisk pace, muttering dark imprecations under his breath. "Has to be you, Sandburg. I've seen your office. Don't bother to ask anyone else, Jim. Jesus!"

Blair stopped suddenly and slapped a hand to his head. In the heated moment of the argument, he'd forgotten to tell Jim about his office door being smashed. He shook his head. He'd seriously screwed up his karma here and it appeared things were going from bad to worse. He'd maybe tell Jim about the door tonight or maybe not. The last thing he needed now was an overprotective Blessed Protector. He sighed as he stopped at the curb opposite the garage. The way Jim was feeling toward him right now, he'd probably blame him for that as well.

Maybe he could cook up spicy meaty lasagna and pick up a bottle of Jim's favorite red wine. Then they could sit down together and discuss what the hell was going on in their lives and what the hell they were going to do about it in a mellow laid back atmosphere.

The roar of an engine was his only warning and Blair looked up to see a car heading straight for him at high speed. He had no time to do more than throw his body forward in the desperate hope of avoiding the collision. The car clipped him on his hip and he grunted at the pain then he was tossed upward into the air.

In the fractured kaleidoscope his world had become, he caught a glimpse of a familiar face behind the wheel, then he somersaulted, skidding along the blacktop on his side until his head slammed into the edge of the curb and the lights went out.

0~0~0~0~0

By the time Jim finished retyping his report his ire had cooled somewhat and he had begun to feel guilty at his assumption that Blair was responsible for the mess. Granted his lover was pretty laid-back about the state of his office and even his side of the bedroom for that matter. Jim couldn't hold back a smile as he remembered asking Blair how he managed to find anything in the war-zone that was his original bedroom. Blair had shrugged philosophically.

"Don't sweat the small stuff, man. I know where all the important stuff is."

One thing Blair didn't do was lie. Obsfuscate, yes. When there was a little white lie to be told, especially to avoid hurting someone's feelings, Sandburg was up there with the best of them.

Even those small lapses had mostly petered out once Jim told Blair he could tell if someone was lying by the changes in their heart rate. But Blair wouldn't lie about something like this. He might have made up a thousand excuses for why he did it but he would never expect someone else to take the blame for his wrongdoing.

Already rehearsing his apology in his head, Jim reached for the phone. He jumped as it rang as he put his hand on the receiver. "Ellison."

"Detective Ellison? This is Nurse Jane MacDonald from Cascade General Hospital. We've just had a young man brought in who was the victim of a hit-run. His ID lists you as his To Be Notified."

Jim felt his mouth go dry. "Sandburg?" he croaked. "Blair Sandburg?"

"Yes, sir. That's correct. The doctor asked me to tell you that he's conscious and in some pain but his condition is stable."

"Tell him I'm on my way."

0~0~0~0~0

Hospitals got right up Blair's nose - literally. The smell of the antiseptic mingled with illness and blood and other unpleasant things that he'd really not think about right now when he could feel bile making another concerted surge up his throat. Moaning in abject misery at the movement of the sheet over the grazes on his body, Blair rolled to the side and vomited into the bowl next to him.

He didn't hear the door open or the footsteps that rapidly crossed the floor to his side. A large warm hand descended on his shoulder while another scraped back the hair from his sweaty face.

"Yuck!" he managed when he was done. Rolling onto his back he closed his eyes quickly as the room did a slow roll. "Jim? That you?"

Strong fingers enclosed his clammy ones and squeezed gently. "Yeah, it's me. How are you doing, Chief?"

"Lousy, actually." Blair knew he sounded whiny and pathetic but he really did hurt all over. His hands and entire left side bore deep grazes from the road and he sported a large bump over his left eye from his sudden stop against the curb. A huge bruise discolored his left hip and flared with pain at the slightest movement.

He knew he was lucky. No broken bones, the doctor said, a mild concussion, cuts and bruises. Yep, that was him - lucky Blair.

He lost himself in the mesmerizing stroke across his brow and managed a small smile as feather-soft lips touched his own.

"Sorry," Jim breathed into his mouth. "I was an overbearing asshole."

"Yes you were," Blair agreed self-righteously. "But if you get me out of here, you're forgiven."

Jim sat down on the seat by the gurney. "What happened?"

Blair shrugged. "I was crossing the road. And suddenly she was on top of me."

Jim sat forward. "She? You saw the driver?"

"Just for a second. I thought I recognized her." He looked up at the ceiling. "Jim, it looked like Carolyn."

Jim's eyes widened. "Carolyn? It can't have been, Chief." He shook his head. "What kind of car was it?"

Blair shrugged. "It was on top of me before I knew it. Dark colored sedan, late model, shiny. I did get close enough to get a quick look at her face before I hit the road."

"Why the hell would she want to do that?"

Blair pulled himself upright, gritting his teeth against the pain in his hip and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He lowered his head and panted through the nausea that threatened to overtake him. Jim was up at his side in a minute, one hand pressing him back onto the gurney.

"Will you lay back down? You look like shit."

"Thanks," Blair managed to get out between his clenched teeth. "Doctor said I can go home. He gave me a prescription for some painkillers." Blair pointed to the basket on the end of the bed. "Can you throw me my pants and shirt?'

Jim pulled the clothes out and held them up. "You can wear the pants but the shirt's a goner." He stared at the torn, blood-stained cloth. "Jesus, Blair, you could have been killed."

Blair managed to get onto his feet and stood, wavering slightly. "It's going from bad to worse, man. First my car then my door, now this."

"What door?"

Blair gave a tired sigh. "Someone smashed the etched glass panel in my office door. I'm sorry. I know it meant a lot to you and to me too. I can't replace it."

"Anyone else you've pissed off lately? Besides Carolyn?" Jim added at Blair's quick look.

"A student at school, Tommy Nitschke has been pretty insistent that I change his grade...but Jim, it was a woman driving."

"Maybe Nitschke's got a devoted girlfriend. I'll do some digging."

Blair looked at him with a misery-filled expression. "What am I going to wear home?"

With a sigh, Jim removed his leather jacket and draped it over Blair's shivering shoulders. Wrapping his arm gently around Blair's waist, he steered the younger man toward the door. "Come on, let's get you home to bed. I've got some phone calls to make."

Blair raised a sultry eyebrow. "Did you say bed?"

"To sleep, Sandburg," Jim groused.

"Ignore me. I'm kinda loopy right now."

"Like that's a change."

0~0~0~0~0

Blair was deeply asleep by the time they were half -way home to the loft and that gave Jim ample opportunity to mull over the other man's disquieting announcement. Jim knew that Carolyn was upset with him because of his relationship with Blair and he still suspected that her lack of cooperation in finalizing the lab reports had more to do with his confession than the reasons she'd given.

He wondered if Blair could have merely glimpsed a view of the driver, noted a similarity to Carolyn and then his concussed brain had filled in the erroneous blanks. Jim muttered softly to himself as he pulled the truck into a parking space in front of the apartment. Blair was the one who figured out all the head stuff. Jim saw things in black and white, right and wrong. He didn't disbelieve Blair, he had too much respect for the man to do that but Carolyn was a fellow cop and his ex-wife. The accusation seemed too far-fetched to be true.

Sighing, Jim shook the troubling thoughts from his mind and concentrated on getting his drowsy lover up to the apartment. Fortunately the elevator was working but even so, by the time he was settled on the couch, Blair's face was gray with pain. The younger man accepted the pain-killers Jim held out with a wan smile and then curled up gingerly on the couch, grimacing as the grazes on his side rubbed against the material.

"Wouldn't you be more comfortable in bed?" Jim frowned as he watched Blair shift in a seemingly futile effort to get comfortable.

"I don't want to even think about tackling those stairs. I'll be fine. You better get going so you can meet up with Henri at the stakeout."

Jim shook his head and perched on the edge of the coffee table. "I'll get Simon to assign someone else. I'll stay here and keep an eye on you."

"I'm just going to sleep." Blair waved Jim's concern away with a lazy hand, his eyes already closing.

Jim was adamant. "Brown and Rafe can handle it. Someone tried to run you down, Chief. I'd like to keep an eye on you until we know who."

"Okay. What about my car?" Blair's eyes opened as he fretted over his beloved classic. "Can you phone them and see if they can deliver it?"

"Sure."

Jim made up Blair's old futon in the spare room and got his lover settled reasonably comfortably before making the first of several phone calls. No one had come forward as a witness to the hit-run. Blair's mechanic saw the car as it accelerated away and had not been close enough to get a look at the driver.

Feeling queasy, he made a second call to the precinct and casually checked on Carolyn's whereabouts earlier in the day. Carolyn's assistant, Jake Murray told Jim that she'd been in and out of the lab all day as indeed she was most days. Jim hung up, still deeply troubled.

He looked in on Blair, pleased to see the anthropologist was asleep though there were still fine lines of pain framing his eyes. Jim made himself comfortable on the couch, wanting to stay close to his lover. He dozed fitfully during the night, getting up twice to wake Blair and check his neurological state and then another time to help his hollow-eyed partner limp to the bathroom.

The following morning saw them both feeling rough around the edges. Blair limped from the spare room, muttering dark curses as he tried to loosen his stiff muscles. He took the coffee Jim offered with a smile of appreciation but waved away the plate of toast that Jim held under his nose, backing down when Jim glared at him.

What about my car?" Blair fretted around a mouthful of toast. "Can you phone them and see if they can deliver it?"

"Sure."

Jim made the call to Blair's mechanic who told him that the best he could do was delivering it to the police station. Blair frowned at the message.

"I need it to get to Rainier."

Jim shook his head as he scraped the plates and put them into the sink. "I don't think you're going to be up to running around today. You're going to be pretty stiff and sore for a while." He didn't voice his concern that he wanted to keep Blair nearby until they discovered who was after the young man.

Blair was stubborn. "I'll pick up some tests, bring them back here to grade. I feel fine, really, just a little stiff."

Jim eyed his lover skeptically. "Promise?"

Blair nodded solemnly. "Cross my heart."

"You do the wrong thing I'll have your ass."

Blair wiggled his eyebrows. "Is that a promise?"

"Table leg, Sandburg." Jim thought a moment. "Okay. You can come into work with me and pick up your car. I'll get someone to go with you to the university and then go home with you." He raised a finger as Blair opened his mouth to protest. "My way or not, Sandburg. Call me when you get home, all right?"

"Jim, I'll be fine."

"Humor me."

"Okay."

Satisfied with that much, the two men headed to the station. Blair's car was already in the parking garage when they arrived and he climbed stiffly from the cab of the truck, shaking off Jim's helping hand abruptly. "Sorry," he said upon seeing Jim's crestfallen look, indicating the few officers arriving for the day. "No reason to fan the flames though."

Jim nodded in agreement. "Wait here until I line someone up to go to Rainier with you."

Blair was already at his car, running his hands lovingly over the bodywork. "I'm in a hurry so if you can't find someone in ten minutes, they can meet me at the university."

"Blair..."

Blair held up his hands in surrender. "All right already."

0~0~0~0~0

Jim shook his head as he made his way to the elevator. He called in to Simon's office to fill the incredulous captain in on the details of Blair's accident. Simon decided that Jim was too involved to carry out an unbiased investigation and insisted that the Traffic Division be allowed to handle the case, until such time as there was reason to believe there was something more sinister.

"You really think Carolyn had something to do with this?" Simon's face was solemn.

Jim lowered himself into the chair opposite his captain. "To be honest, sir, no but Blair's an observer by profession. I trust him enough to know we've got to look into it. There's this Tommy Nitschke too. I've got Rafe checking out his whereabouts for the times of the attacks too and looking into his background."

"Like I said, unless you get something more concrete, I want you to let Traffic handle the hit-run, Jim. Campus police is looking into the vandalism on Sandburg's office and car." The captain escorted Jim to the door. "I need you and Brown out chasing up any old acquaintances of Casey's. Anyone that owed him a favor or was close enough to want to give him a safe place to stay."

"Hey, Captain, Jim." Henri Brown gave them a cheery wave as he walked into the bullpen. "How's Hairboy?"

"Stiff and sore, H, but still in one piece."

Henri nodded. "He's one lucky dude, unlike your ex-wife."

"Why's that?"

Henri pointed back the way he'd come. "Have you seen her car?"

At the mystified negative from the other two men, Henri snorted. "She's parked it right in the back corner of the garage, it's going to be a bitch to get out. Looks like she already had trouble getting it in there, the headlight is broken and front fender's dented pretty good." His voice trailed off at the look of shock on Jim's face then realization hit him. "Oh, man, no! She wouldn't do that."

Jim was already heading for the stairs at a run and both Simon and Henri had to scramble to keep up with him. They found Carolyn's car still where Henri had seen it, the damage difficult to see in the darkened recess of the garage.

Jim leaned down and studied the headlight carefully. His heart sank when he saw a smear of blood over the broken glass. Squatting down to take a sample for testing, Jim froze then reached forward slowly and pulled a tiny fragment of cloth from the underside of the fender. The scrap would have been invisible to normal eyes, Jim realized. Standing, he held the piece of cloth up and dropped it into the plastic bag that Henri held out. "That's the same color shirt that Blair was wearing yesterday."

Hurrying footsteps approached the almost hidden corner and then slowed as the three men turned around. Carolyn took a staggering step back as Jim's face darkened with anger. She shook her head, one hand reaching out as though in supplication. "Jim! It's not how it looks. I just thought I could scare him a little. Make him leave you alone."

She turned her attention to Simon. "He shouldn't have still been here. His ridealong was over months ago. I should have realized then when he never left." Her face turned ugly. "Was he servicing you too? A fuck in exchange for being able to stay here with his lover?"

Jim took a step forward, his face a stoic mask but his jaw clenched so tightly against the bile that surged up his throat, he thought it would crack. "You have the right to remain silent," he began, his voice raw with grief.

"No. Wait." Carolyn said, backing up until a concrete pillar stopped her retreat. "I just wanted to scare him away. I was on my way back from the doctor yesterday. I got an HIV test and suddenly he was there right in front of me. I wasn't thinking straight. I was so angry, so afraid." She was crying now, mascara streaking her cheeks and dripping from her chin. "He could have infected you, Jimmy. Have you at least been tested?"

Simon laid a hand on Jim's arm, halting his progress. "Jim? Let me handle this, all right?"

Jim nodded silently and walked away, Carolyn's last angry words ringing in his ears, shouting over Simon's Miranda warnings. "He doesn't love you, you know. He's just out to get what he can. He's a pervert and a parasite. He never loved you, Jimmy. It's over now. He'll never bother anyone again."

Jim stopped short, the color draining from his face as he picked up the import of Carolyn's last words. "What did you do?"

Carolyn grinned triumphantly at him as a shocked-looking Henri pulled her arms behind her back and cuffed them. "I'm exercising my right to remain silent."

Jim looked around the parking garage frantically. "Oh God. Where's Blair?"

0~0~0~0~0

Blair limped up and down in front of his car, getting more and more impatient by the second. His hip was beginning to throb angrily and he had already decided to forego the trip to the university and just head back to the apartment. Jim was right, he grudgingly conceded. He was just too sore to be running around this soon.

That thought turned his attention back to the driver of the car and the problem that niggled at him. Had he really seen Carolyn behind the wheel of the car? If it hadn't been her, then who hated him enough to want to kill him? The idea that it was Carolyn troubled him more than anything - that and the knowledge that he was certain he had identified the driver correctly. It was only his love and concern for Jim that had stopped him making it a definite identification. He kept hoping for more evidence, something that would prove him wrong.

The pain in his hip increased with each choppy step Blair took so he finally hobbled to the driver's side door and unlocked the car. Seating himself behind the wheel with a weary sigh, Blair made a snap decision. He'd drive home and phone Jim from there, letting him know he was all right. Starting the Volvo, he drove up the ramp, stopping briefly to ask one of the uniformed officers to pass a message onto Jim that he'd gone home. Content that Jim would be relieved and already hearing his lover's smug 'I told you so', Blair turned left out of the garage and headed toward the loft.

He stopped at an intersection as the light turned red and looked casually over at the driver beside him...and froze.

Joe Casey! Blair had studied the man's photo often over the last few days, trying to see the fiend who had murdered his own wife and child and only finding an ordinary man. Cruel featured and angry-looking but just your average American.

Blair tore his gaze away as Casey looked over at him, drumming his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. As casually as he could, hoping that Casey couldn't see the cold sweat that beaded his brow, Blair reached down and pulled his cell phone from the backpack by his feet. Quickly he punched in Jim's number and put the phone to his ear, struggling to hear the ringing over the pounding of his heart. "Come on," he implored. "Answer your fucking phone, Jim."

He risked another look at Casey and froze as Casey glared back at him. The two men's eyes locked, then Casey's gaze flickered to the cell phone at Blair's ear and then back to his face. And Blair knew. There was no way Casey knew who he was or who he was phoning but he had to know his picture had been splashed over the front page of the local newspaper and flashed on every TV screen. Blair knew he'd been sprung.

Perversely Joe Casey smiled. At the same moment Jim's voice echoed from the phone in Blair's hand, the BMW shot forward as the other man floored the accelerator. Blair instinctively followed suit and swung his car in behind Casey's. He struggled to keep his sight on the road and focus on Jim's concerned words at the same time.

"Sandburg? Is that you? What the hell's going on?"

"Jim! Jim! Shut up and listen for a minute." Blair urged the Volvo to go faster as he saw Casey beginning to draw away from him. He was heading out of town. Once they hit the open road, Blair knew he'd have no hope of keeping up. "Jim, I spotted Joe Casey."

"What! Where?"

"We're on the highway heading out of town. He's just in front of me, driving a dark blue BMW, license number - 459-ADK. Jim, get someone out here, I'm not sure if I can keep up with him much longer."

"Blair? Look, I'm handing over to Simon. Pull over and let someone else handle it. You hear me? I'm on my way."

"What? Are you kidding. He could get away. Look, Jim, I'm not going to try and stop him. I'll just follow him until a patrol can get to us."

"Blair! Pull over now. I think Carolyn's tampered with your car."

Blair looked down in disbelief at his foot where it pressed gently onto the brake as he took a bend in the road. Experimentally he pressed a little harder but the car showed no signs of slowing. As they began a climb up an incline in the road, Blair spoke up. "Jim? I think I may have a problem here, man."

"What's happening, Sandburg?" Simon's voice. "Jim's on his way out to his car. He wants you to hang up and he's going to call you. What's wrong?'

"My brakes," Blair croaked. He coughed, choked and tried again. "My brakes aren't working. Oh shit!"

As the Volvo crested the top of the hill and started the descent, the steering wheel shuddered violently in Blair's hands. The cell phone dropped to the seat, forgotten as Blair struggled to regain control of the car. He'd gained on Casey now and had to pull hard on the wheel to avoid going up the BMW's rear end.

As he came level with the other car on the downward slope, Blair glanced across and saw his own shock mirrored in Casey's eyes. Ahead there was a sharp bend in the road and Casey seemed to miss it, his concentration still on Blair and his eyes going wide as he belatedly attempted to steer around the corner. The car's tires screamed and smoked as Casey fought to find a purchase on the road. The rear end of the car fishtailed uncontrollably and then the BMW bounced and kept going straight ahead at high speed until the trunk of a large tree stopped its deadly trajectory and it burst into flames.

Blair had no time to spare to see Casey's fate as the steering wheel bucked once more beneath his hands and he floored the brakes again to no avail. He fought to control the Volvo and steer around the blazing wreckage of Casey's car, still pumping madly on his brakes and trying to get his speeding car around the bend in the road.

He reached for the key in the ignition at the same time as he steered the Volvo awkwardly into the tight corner, searching frantically for a soft collision spot. He panicked as he felt the car tip to one side and then suddenly he was airborne as the car flipped. The second impact with the blacktop slammed Blair's head against the driver's side window and sent him reeling into darkness. Dimly he felt something smash into his chest and he screamed from the agony of it. Then everything was silent save for the creaking of stressed metal and a faint tinny voice calling desperately from the abandoned cell phone on the floor.

0~0~0~0~0

Sharp pain in his chest and his leg forced him back toward awareness and as he opened bleary eyes and took stock of his situation, Blair wished for the blessed oblivion of unconsciousness.

His car appeared to have righted itself once more, and the engine was still running. Shakily Blair reached out to turn off the ignition but cried out as agony tore through his ribs at the movement. He tried to open the door but it appeared to be jammed and looking down, Blair realized it was a moot point anyway. He was pinned to his seat by the steering wheel and any movement sent a shard of white-hot pain through his chest. It was becoming difficult to breathe and Blair tried to calm himself as black spots began to crowd his vision.

A voice floated up from the phone on the floor and a single tear snaked down Blair's bloody cheek. "Simon?" he called, writhing against the pain in his chest. "Where's Jim?"

He could hear the faint sound of sirens and then a screaming of brakes. Running footsteps approached and then the driver's door was wrenched open, tearing a cry from him as the movement rocked the car and aggravated his injuries. Blair looked up into Jim's white face.

Jim's big hand stroked gently down his cheek. "Hang in there Blair. Ambulance is on its way. You'll be out of here in no time."

Blair was fading, Jim's voice echoing in his ears. "Sorry," he whispered as his eyes slid shut. "Should have waited."

0~0~0~0~0

ONE WEEK LATER:

"I'm fine. I don't need a wheelchair."

Nurse Hilary Jackson crossed her arms over her ample chest and glared at her recalcitrant patient. "If you want to leave here, you do, Mr. Sandburg. Doctor's orders until you can have a walking heel put on your cast."

Blair looked piteously at his partner for help. "Jim? Come on, man. How am I supposed to get around the station and the apartment in a wheelchair? Not to mention the university. You know how I feel about elevators these days."

Jim rolled his eyes and took command of the wheelchair from the nurse. "I'll take it from here, Nurse." He nodded his thanks as she held open the door and then pressed his hand firmly to Blair's shoulder as the other man struggled to rise. "Stay!" he ordered. "Now if you're good boy, I'll take you over to your office now so you can pick up some work to do at home, which is where you're staying until the doctor gives you the all-clear."

Blair turned huge eyes on his partner. "I could do your paperwork," he offered hopefully.

Jim nodded and smiled. "At home. I'll bring it all home for you."

Blair frowned. "I'm not going to win this one, am I?"

"Jesus, Blair, you could have been killed in that car wreck." Jim shuddered at the memory of holding Blair's unconscious, bleeding body as the paramedics cut him out of the car. He'd been lucky. A broken ankle and three broken ribs, along with a punctured lung and cuts and bruises. It could have been much worse, Jim knew.

Casey had been killed, either on impact with the tree or he had been incinerated when the car caught fire. It was a perverse kind of justice. Carolyn was pleading temporary insanity to the charges of attempted murder. Perhaps she was mentally unstable or maybe she was just so used to getting her own way that she was prepared to remove any obstacle in her path. Jim wondered now if he had ever really known her.

He got Blair belted into the passenger seat and placed the wheelchair into the tray of the truck then headed for the university. Simon was already there, finalizing Jim's surprise for his lover.

After the initial paralyzed shock at Carolyn's actions, Jim and Blair's colleagues at Major Crime had closed ranks around the two men, allowing them both to heal within a protected circle. They had talked long into the night once Blair's condition had stabilized and now simply wanted to be allowed to continue on with their lives as they had before. Jim had one final offering to demonstrate his love for Blair and he struggled not to show his excitement as he pulled into a parking space outside Hargrove Hall.

He wheeled Blair into the elevator, watching in sympathy as Blair squeezed his eyes tightly shut as the ancient car slowly made its way to the basement. He tapped Blair's shoulder when it finally ground to a halt. "All over, Chief. We're here."

Jim pushed the wheelchair out and then along the corridor, slowing as they neared Blair's office. Blair looked up at him with a puzzled expression.

"What's wrong?" He squinted ahead and then pulled his glasses from his shirt pocket. "What's Simon doing here?"

"Just helping me set something up." Jim smiled as Simon noted their approach and pulled Blair's office door closed.

A small gasp from Blair made him smile and he saw his lover's hand go to his mouth. "Oh, Jim. It's beautiful."

Indeed it was. It had cost a small fortune but as soon as Jim had seen the finished etching of a jaguar hovering protectively over a wolf, mimicking Blair's actions with little Melissa Casey on the night of the fire, he knew it was perfect. Leaning forward now, he pressed a kiss to Blair's forehead uncaring of the reactions of others. "Just like you, sweetheart. Happy anniversary."

The End.

[ Thank the author! ] [ Back to Index index ]

Acknowledgements: To Mary for the stellar beta, to Corinne for the gorgeous photos and to my MME sibs.