Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

The Auction

Story by Arianna

Illustrations by Peter Neverland

Beta by StarWatcher


This story has been written for the Moonridge 2006 Online Auction and I thank Janet for the original idea.

And I dedicate it to Gerri, for your incredible, awesome generosity in the donation you made to win this story! Thank you so much!

********************

Detective Blair Sandburg loped down the hall to the Records Department, while his partner, Jim Ellison, waited impatiently by the elevator. Annoyed, Sandburg wished that Ellison would just go on up to the sixth floor instead of waiting it wasn't as if he couldn't find his way and he felt foolish having a minder. But he'd only graduated from the Academy a little more than a week before and there were some well, maybe quite a few brothers and sisters in blue who weren't taking kindly to having a liar and a fraud in their midst, let alone one that had been promoted before a number of no doubt far more worthy others to the prestigious detective slot in Major Crimes. So Jim had taken it upon himself to shadow Blair around the department, with the hope of encouraging the natives to be courteous, if not actually friendly. Forget welcoming.

Blair understood Jim's good intentions and even appreciated them the intentions, not the thunderous escort service. They were friends, still best friends despite having weathered stuff that would have destroyed most friendships, and now they were officially partnered as detectives. So Jim was just being friendly and solicitous, ensuring that he got a warm welcome to his new place of employment.

Friendly and solicitous. Yeah, right. Like a rabid wild dog was friendly and solicitous. The perpetual scowl Jim sported was as good as a sign that stated, 'Approach at your own risk'. Blair's lips twitched in unconscious wry amusement. He could never figure out why Jim's hostile expressions were so successful in intimidating his colleagues. Surely other cops knew he'd never do anything to actually physically hurt them. It was posturing, pure and simple, the alpha warrior letting the others know they were to stay away from his possessions. Which was all mildly amusing if one didn't mind feeling like a 'possession'. Grimacing, Blair pushed the irritable thoughts away, feeling disloyal for even thinking them. Jim was his partner and Jim was only trying to ease his way, the best way he knew how. In his own way, Jim was showing that he cared.

Bottomline, the 'protector' thing wasn't working. If anything, it was only telegraphing that he couldn't handle the hostility on his own or maybe that he couldn't be absolutely trusted to wander around the PD without a chaperone. Either way, it wasn't good. Or necessary. Blair had been prepared for some degree of backlash and resentment; he didn't expect to be welcomed with open arms. He knew it would take time for his notoriety to die down, maybe a good long time. Nor did he blame anyone for how they felt; they didn't know the truth. They could only know what they'd seen on the news, and in the carnage of MCU after Zeller had ripped through, shooting the place up. That wouldn't have happened, nor would Simon and Megan have been shot, if Jim hadn't been distracted and blinded by cameras and rabid journalists on the night they'd set things up to catch the assassin. Instead, Zeller had gotten away and there had been hell to pay. In some respects, he supposed he was still paying. But, God, if he was going to go up against armed and dangerous bad guys as a cop in his own right, let alone face the even more alarming challenge of defence attorneys challenging his legitimacy as a witness in future courts cases, surely he could be expected to handle the sneers and whispers, or even outright jeers, of his new colleagues. None of it would be pleasant, far from it, but there was no way around it; he just had to pay his dues and get through it.

Besides, Jim's impersonation of a caveman protecting what was his was disconcerting. Made him feel like a wimp, as if he couldn't take care of himself. No question, Jim was an alpha male and Blair didn't usually have a lot of trouble with the role of beta. In his mind, they weren't in any kind of competition and it was his job to support Jim at work, to help him with his senses, to do what he could to help solve the cases they were assigned. He'd always felt that way, and now he was being paid to do the job. But too many people had always speculated about the exact nature of their relationship. The speculation hadn't mattered before because, for one thing, they'd always been friends, just friends and, for another, he'd only been an observer, not a fellow cop who had to 'measure up'. But in a matter of weeks, everything had changed and they were in a whole new game and, true to form, they hadn't discussed the new game plan. Now people were speculating about Jim's senses and the 'secret' was increasingly threatened, despite the press conference. And many wondered why Jim tolerated his presence after the debacle of the dissertation and why Simon had gone to bat for him. Rumours were rife and the worst part was that the rumours were mostly true, however much they tried to pretend otherwise. But Blair was determined to do all he could to take the heat, to keep the attention on himself and away from Jim until people lost interest and stopped wondering what was truth and what was fiction. So he was reconciled to being something of an outcast. So long as it didn't deteriorate to delayed backup in the field and posed a risk to their lives, he could live with the grumbling. Sticks and stones, and all that crap. No big deal in the great scheme of things.

The problem was, Jim wasn't reconciled to the necessity of simply enduring and ignoring the all too understandable antagonism. To the contrary, the whispers and not so discreet commentary royally pissed him off, and he stomped around in a state of perpetual irritation. Frankly, Blair reflected, it was getting on his nerves and he was pretty sure Jim's obviously defensive behaviours were only fueling the predictable if unwelcome speculations about why he'd been given the badge, and why he was still living in Jim's apartment. And that worried him a lot. No way did they need anyone wondering if maybe all the hoo-haw about Jim being a sentinel was true. Nor did they need anyone believing he was little more than Ellison's boy-toy, or that Simon would countenance such a bizarre reason for allowing him to join MCU as a detective. God, it had been so much easier to handle the whispers and snide comments, the sidelong looks and the not so subtle jibes when there'd been nothing concrete to deny. Now now he felt like he was living a lie and he knew that Jim felt the same way and the more they protested, the more Jim 'loomed' and scowled and growled, the more uncomfortable they both became with the charade. He'd tried to tell Jim to back off and let it go, but he'd just gotten a laser-like glare and a grated, "Live with it, Chief," for his trouble.

Stifling a sigh and pasting a smile on his face, he checked his momentum and slid around the doorframe into the cavernous file room that housed the departmental records and archive. His smile widened when he saw the clerk on desk duty was the long, lanky and infinitely sexy blond, Cindy-Lou Makins from South Carolina. Her drawl alone was enough to warm the cockles of any man's heart and those big blue eyes could be downright lethal. "Hey, Cindy-Lou!" he called, hopeful that the easiness they'd known weeks before, well, before the press conference, wouldn't have evaporated as it had with it seemed everyone else in his life. "You got those files I requisitioned this morning?"

Looking up, she grinned and nodded as she stood to move to the counter. "Right here, darlin'," she crooned as she hefted two large, well-stuffed interoffice envelopes and handed them over to him. "Just need your John Henry and you're good to go."

Relieved by the congeniality of her manner, he cheerfully signed the register. "Thanks," he murmured gratefully, glad that the casual friendship they'd shared for the past few years seemed intact. He smiled again and turned to go, but she called, "Blair, hon now that you're finally legal, are you going to volunteer for this year's charity auction?"

Pausing in the doorway, he looked back over his shoulder. "Uh no, I hadn't planned to," he stammered, surprised at the suggestion. Every year, the PD held a big auction of the single men and women who were prepared to climb up on the stage and be embarrassed by the lively bidding for a chance for dinner in their company. Oh, it was definitely a good cause the money went to various organizations that cared for impoverished and homeless children in Cascade and, God knew, they needed every dime they could get. All things being equal, Blair would have been glad to volunteer but it wasn't exactly a way to maintain a low profile and he sure didn't need to garner any more attention than he was already being accorded. For years, he'd tried to get Jim to volunteer, as only employees were allowed up on that stage and, as an observer, he hadn't been eligible before.

"Well, you better 'plan to', sweetcheeks," she drawled, flirting outrageously. "Ah've been savin' up my shekels and I want my chance to score dinner with you." Other women in the department looked up at the banter and chuckled at Blair's evident discomfiture. "Matter o' fact, ah've taken the liberty of submitting your name this year." Batting her eyelashes, she smiled like the Cheshire cat as she informed him, "Ah do believe that ya'll be number seven on this year's program."

"Oh," Blair said, nonplussed. But when he saw a shadow of anxiety flicker in her eyes, and she asked quickly if he minded very much, he blinked and shook his head. "No, I don't mind," he assured her warmly. "In fact, I'm flattered. Thank you."

Relieved, her grin again bright, she waved him on his way.

Back in the corridor, he rolled his eyes and hastened back to his partner who had evidently heard the whole exchange and appeared distinctly unamused.

"Jim, it's for charity, man," he cajoled, hoping to lighten the fierce scowl. "It'll be fun."

"Uh huh," Ellison grunted as he pressed heavily on the elevator button. "If she wins, she'll eat you alive."

Grinning cheekily, determinedly cheerful, he riposted merrily, "A man can dream, right? Besides, you're just jealous."

Jim snorted and shook his head, his expression grim as he refused to be drawn into the banter.

"Geez, would you lighten up?" Blair complained, beginning to resent the implied censure, again on so many levels that he wasn't exactly sure whether to be affronted, appalled or simply deeply angry. There was no reason for Jim's hostility, not on any level.

But Jim turned ice cold eyes upon him. "Lighten up? Correct me if I'm wrong, Sandburg, but aren't you the one who keeps preaching that all you need to do is keep a low profile and things will cool off? Everyone in the department who isn't on duty shows up at these yearly auctions and you know it. Parading your wares to entice bids isn't exactly the way to prove what a sober and serious detective you are."

Swallowing hard to keep from flashing back in anger, Blair flushed and turned away. Jim was only parroting his own words back at him. "Consider it an initiation rite, of sorts," he finally muttered testily. "Doing my job is one way of gaining acceptance but celebration in the informal culture is an even greater indication of belonging."

"Still an anthropologist, huh, Chief?" Jim retorted flatly. "Even after all that's happened." But he didn't sound pissed off anymore, just hollow and sad.

Blair closed his eyes and his lips thinned as he bowed his head under the weight of Jim's persistent if wholly unwarranted guilt, and he wished the damned elevator would come. "Let it go, Jim," he murmured wearily. "Please, man, would you just let it go. We're past all that."

He could feel Jim look at him bleakly, but the elevator doors finally, mercifully, opened and the car was nearly full, putting a stop to their conversation. Mutely, they got on and rode it up to the sixth floor, both of them painfully aware of the dark looks several fellow travelers visited on Blair. He did his best to ignore them and to pretend he didn't know that Jim was glaring daggers back at them. Time. It would take time and there was no way on earth to rush the process of acceptance.

What was more aggravating was that there also didn't appear to be any way on earth to get Jim to take off his hair shirt and stop grieving for what he continued to believe Sandburg had lost by defending him and safeguarding his privacy. Blair had argued until he was hoarse that it had been his choice, his decision and he had no regrets. Increasingly, he couldn't decide if he was more angry or hurt that Jim didn't seem willing to believe him, didn't trust him to be telling the truth. Given that actions always said more to Jim than mere words ever could, he'd thrown himself into the training at the Academy and donned his weapon and his badge with nary a hesitation every morning, determined to be the best partner he could be. But even the actions and his focus on the job at work didn't seem to have any positive impact. So, he was out of ideas about how to convince his friend that he was okay, really okay, better than okay, with how it had all turned out.

They had to get past this. He could live with the looks and the whispers and the snide remarks, but Jim's guilt and distrust of his word was corrosive and could destroy them. Dammit, if Jim still didn't trust him, didn't believe him after all they'd gone through, and all they were to one another, then Blair didn't know if he ever would and no partnership, however well-intentioned, could indefinitely survive that kind of doubt.

And he dearly wished Jim would quit looming, already! It was embarrassing.

********************

Jim frowned heavily as he followed his partner toward their desks but though he appeared furious with the world, it was himself he was most angry with. He didn't need Sandburg to tell him to back off or to let things go he knew perfectly well that he was out of line, but he couldn't seem to get a grip on his emotions. Too much had happened that he hadn't reconciled and he had that antsy feeling that goes with waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like an itch he couldn't reach, a scent he couldn't quite make out but he knew, he knew just as he'd known there was something wrong before he'd ever realized there was another sentinel in the city he knew there was threat in the air, hovering near, just on the periphery of his senses. And it was driving him crazy.

Glancing toward his boss's office, he saw Simon watching him with a worried frown. Jim's lips thinned as he looked away, only to pick up on the covert surveillance by his colleagues who followed their progress through the office out the corners of eyes or surreptitiously, while appearing to read reports or files. His jaw tightened and his shoulders twitched. Dragging in a deep breath, he tried to force himself to relax, but it was no good. Tension coiled in his gut and tightened his chest.

Blair studied him with narrowed eyes, his expression just short of being exasperated. Wordlessly, he slid half the files he was carrying onto Jim's desk before turning to drop into the chair behind his own. "Let's just finish this assignment," Sandburg muttered as he turned his attention to the file on the top of the stack.

Jim nodded tightly, pulled off his jacket and hung it on the hook behind him, before settling in his chair. This was the last set of files they had to review to ensure all the cases since his senses had come online could withstand scrutiny. It was boring, excessively tedious work, but it had to be done. Sooner or later, someone was going to raise a challenge and as hard as they'd tried as Blair had tried to get the genie back into the bottle, it was only a matter of time. On the one hand, Jim would be very glad when this review was finally complete. He'd been tied to his desk, going through files on his own for nearly a month: all the time that Sandburg had been taking weapons and self defense training, and taking the exams the Academy threw at him to determine his fitness to carry a badge, plus the more than a week since the kid had reported for duty as his partner. Once these last files were done, they'd be free to be assigned new cases. Jim swallowed heavily at that thought. Much as he hated paperwork, he couldn't say he was straining at the leash to get out onto the streets where Blair wouldn't be an observer anymore, but a cop, packing a weapon. The thought of Sandburg deliberately drawing fire in a lethal situation to create a diversion or protect civilians twisted in his gut and locked the muscles of his chest, making it hard to breathe. Closing his eyes, he banished the image and told himself, as he had been telling himself for weeks now, that he had to deal with the inherent and profound change in their relationship that came with Blair putting on a badge and strapping on a weapon. This was what he wanted, right? To have Sandburg be his official partner? So the threat, the danger, came with the turf. That's just the way it was. The way it had to be.

Conscious that his hands had tightened into fists, Jim forced himself to relax and drummed his fingertips on the desk on either side of the file he'd opened to loosen the muscles. On the edge of his peripheral vision, he could see Sandburg covertly watching him, a perplexed expression on his face, his eyes darkly shadowed with concern. His nose twitched, picking up the distinctive scent that clung to Simon's clothing and he looked up, to watch the Captain approach.

Banks looked from him to Sandburg and back again before planting his palms on the edge of Jim's desk and leaning forward to demand with a low growl, "What the hell is going on with the two of you? You can cut the tension around here with a knife and it's beginning to affect morale. Is it being tied to a desk that's got you going stir-crazy? If so, take those files and review them at home. In fact, make that an order. Come back when you're done."

"Fine," Jim grated, slamming the folder closed and standing to grab his jacket.

Simon straightened and cast a questioning glance at Blair, who shook his head and shrugged helplessly. Banks scratched his cheek and then crossed his arms, his head cocked slightly to one side. "Jim whatever is going on with you needs to stop. If you need to talk..."

Lifting his hands, palms out, Jim slowly shook his head. "I know, I know," he allowed, the words rushing out on a sigh. Glancing at Sandburg, he frowned slightly with concern before his gaze fell away and then sought out Simon's. "I can't explain it," he offered, his tone a soft rasp of frustration. "It's like like I can feel something's about to go down, but I don't have a clue what."

Banks quirked a brow and studied Jim intently for a long moment then, with a glance that included Sandburg, he rumbled irritably, "Well, figure it out." Blowing out a breath, he allowed his expression to soften along with his tone as he went on, "It's probably just nerves, you know? The idea of Sandburg packing a weapon..."

"Oh, hey, thanks for the vote of confidence," Blair chimed in, rolling his eyes.

Simon chuckled dryly, without humour. "You'll do fine," he stated firmly. "You know it, and I know it, but " he gaze flicked over Jim, "I think your partner is having a tough time making the transition."

"Tell me about it," Sandburg grumbled, but a smile crinkled at his eyes and around the corners of his mouth. "Can't order me to stay in the truck anymore."

"Like you ever paid attention," Jim groused, appreciating the banter and the effort they were both making to help him relax. Picking up the files, he added, "These'll take us a couple days."

"No problem; things're quiet right now," Banks said magnanimously. "By the time you're done, it'll be the weekend. So I'll see you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on Monday."

"Thanks, Captain," Blair replied as he shoved his stack of files into his backpack. "We'll, uh, sort things out."

"You do that, Sandburg," Simon directed. "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." Jim looked away, resenting the underlying implication of their exchange but unable to deny that he was the one who badly needed sorting.

********************

The swish of wipers smacking away rain pellets that spattered the windshield and drummed on the roof of the cab underscored the edgy silence between the two men. Jim scowled at the traffic, his eyes narrowed against the headache that pounded inside his skull, and Blair stared moodily out at the dreary afternoon, his hands curled into loose fists on his thighs. When they got to the loft, Blair pulled his heavy backpack over his shoulder and Jim grabbed the files he'd carried out and they dashed through the rain to the building, and then tramped up the two flights of stairs. Inside, shivering a bit from the chill, they stripped off their jackets and hung them on the hooks by the door. After dumping the pack and the stack of files on the table, Blair moved into the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil, while Jim started a fire. Neither of them seemed inclined to turn on any lights to dispel the grey gloom of the storm-shrouded afternoon. Scant minutes later, cinnamon-scented steam rose from the two mugs of tea that Blair prepared, and he carried them into the living room, moving to stand beside Jim who was now morosely staring out the balcony windows that streamed with runnels of rain.

"Here, this might help your headache," Sandburg murmured quietly. When Jim took the proffered mug, Blair shifted away to sit on the sofa, his gaze drawn to the fire's bright promise of warmth.

Jim inhaled the steam, letting the scent fill him and he felt some of the tension ease from his neck and shoulders. After blowing over the surface of the hot liquid to cool it, he sipped carefully and savoured the taste as he swallowed. The warmth settled some of the roiling emotion in his belly. Sighing, he turned from the rainscape and sank into his chair. They sat in silence for long minutes, each carefully not looking at the other.

Finally, Blair set his mug down on a coaster on the coffee table and turned to face his partner. "Talk to me," he said quietly but firmly. "Tell me what's got you so twisted up you can hardly function."

Turning his face away, Jim stiffened and he shrugged.

"C'mon, man, don't do this," Blair snapped, and then closed his eyes, forcing himself to relax. Restlessly, he raked his hair back from his face and sank back against the cushions. "You told Simon that you feel like something is going to happen, right?" he tried again, keeping his tone level. With no little trepidation, he asked tentatively, "Is this like, uh, when Alex first came to town and you could sense danger but didn't know the source, or what?"

"No, not exactly," Jim rasped, his gaze on flickering reflections of the firelight on the floor. Grimacing, he chewed on his lip as he thought about it. "Maybe, a bit."

Frowning thoughtfully, Blair studied his friend, wondering if he was going to have to play twenty questions to bring some focus to the discussion. "Okay," he muttered and scrubbed his face with his palms before continuing. "Let's work it through." Absently drumming his fingertips on his thigh, he asked, "Are your senses acting up? Are you seeing, hearing, or smelling something that's not right or maybe out of place?"

Slowly, Jim shook his head. "It's, it's like an itch, sort of," he replied uncertainly, grudgingly, hating his inability to be precise. "Like we're being watched, stalked. I can't explain it."

Blair's gaze narrowed and he stiffened as he leaned forward. "Watched?" he echoed. "Well, we are being watched, by just about everyone these days," he went on carefully. "Maybe you're reacting to the, um, hostility in the air around us at work."

"Maybe," Jim allowed but without much conviction, still not making eye contact. "Feels like more than that."

"You, uh, seemed even more unreasonably angry than usual after I left the Records Department," he ventured.

Jim's expression hardened and he snapped a sharp glance at Blair. "You just can't resist making an exhibition of yourself, can you?" he grated harshly. "Even when it's important to keep a low profile for a while, you just can't resist flirting..."

"Whoa! Just hold on a minute," Blair cut in, his hands lifting defensively, his tone angry. "Is that what this is about? You're still pissed off because I agreed to be in the auction?"

"You're the one who said it was important to keep your head down and just do the job, Sandburg," he growled. "But, oh, no. The first pretty girl who..."

"Smiled at me, Jim," Blair cut in again, seething. "That's it, that's all. The first real smile anyone and I mean anyone has given me in a month! What?" he demanded as he surged to his feet, too agitated to sit still, and began to pace. "I'm supposed to glower at the world like you do every damned day? Well, pardon me for thinking she was being nice, and that the auction might be fun. For Pete's sake, it's for a good cause! So excuse me for feeling like maybe I could act a little normally for a few minutes, maybe be myself, you know, and not some morose little puppet dancing at the end of your string. Dammit. Am I supposed to be miserable just because you don't have the first clue about how to be happy?"

"Smile?" Jim echoed, frowning heavily as he tried to assimilate the flood of words. "Puppet? What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about being sick and tired of everyone treating me like someone just died, like I'm either fragile or or something offensive," he ranted, waving his arms. "Jesus, Jim, you follow me around, looming like the wrath of God if someone looks at me sideways or mutters something you don't want to hear. And you you're the worst of all. You you're miserable all the damned time. You're not sleeping, you pick at your food, you get angry at the least little thing, and I'm fed up with your self-imposed suffering. If I can pick up the pieces and move on, why can't you?"

"It's not that simple," he retorted, pushing himself to his feet to go stand and stare out at the rain.

"What's not simple?" Blair demanded, moving to stand beside him. "Huh?" When Jim turned his face away, he crowded closer and gripped his arm. "Talk to me, dammit. Don't shut down like this. What the hell is going on with you?"

Wrenching away from the touch, Jim turned to glare down at him. "None of it is simple," he snarled. "None of it. Not the fact that you trashed your career and that half the people downtown think I'm some selfish shit for letting you do it, while the other half think I keep you around because you're a good fuck. Either you're a liar and a fraud, or I am and that means that nobody can really trust either of us anymore. I can't believe that doesn't bother you. Anymore than I can believe that it's as easy as you try to pretend to pick up the pieces, as you put it, and move on. And I can't believe that you won't get so fed up with everything eventually that you will do just that move on. So I wonder why we even bother trying."

Blair gaped at him and blinked, slowly shook his head and then threw up his hands as he turned away. Vibrating with tension, he paced the length of the floor and then turned back to face Jim, who was watching him intently. Raking his hair back off his face, he took a breath and held out his hands. "Okay, so what do you want to do? Are you saying you want to quit? That you're sorry I accepted the badge? That you don't want me to be your partner? What?"

"No, I'm not saying any of that," Jim rasped.

Blair stared at him, his face a rigid, pale mask. "So you're saying you don't trust me to stick it out. So trying is a waste of time. Because I'm sure to fail. Is that it?"

Jim rolled his eyes and looked away but shook his head tightly. "I'm not saying that, either," he sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm I'm saying that it's a mess. That it's not as easy as you want to pretend it is." Lifting his gaze to Blair's troubled eyes, he added, "And I guess I'm saying that I don't know if or when it will ever get better, for either of us. I don't know what to do about that, how to fix it. I hate that. It feels impossible. And I think I think you're going to end up being hurt. More hurt than you already are. And I hate that, too."

Blair's gaze fell away, but his expression softened at the helpless, poignant tone of concern for him in his partner's voice and his rigid posture eased. Restlessly, he walked in a small circle and then leaned against the pillar. Crossing his arms, he nodded to himself. "Okay," he murmured. "I understand that it feels impossible right now. And I don't have any easy answers about how to make things better in a hurry." Looking up at his friend, he said softly, "But I didn't take the badge as some consolation prize in the game of life, Jim. I accepted it because, more than anything, I want to be your partner. I want to keep working with you. I want that more than I want anything else in my life." His gaze drifted around the apartment as he continued quietly, "I know you hear a lot more of the crap downtown than I do, and I'm sorry it's so hard to listen to. But we can't can't let what other people think determine our choices or how we live our lives."

Pushing away from the post, he slowly approached Jim, and then stood close to look up at him earnestly. "I know you'd like to set the record straight, that as much as it bothers you to let people know about your senses, you'd rather bite the bullet than let the world believe I willfully lied. I know you think I went too far with that press conference. And I know how hard it must be for you to hear that a lot of people think we're lovers, that you'd abandon your principles about truth and honesty just to keep me around." Reaching out to grip Jim's arms, he stated firmly, "Believe me, I really do know all that and I'm sorry it's so hard for you right now. But you don't owe me or anyone any public explanations about your senses or anything else. Your privacy is your right. And it will get better. Eventually, it will get better."

"It's hard on you, too, Chief," he replied soberly. "You can't tell me it isn't."

Blair sighed and nodded as he let his hands fall away. "It will get better," he reiterated stubbornly. "And, hey, if I get up on that stage next week and make a spectacle of myself for the ladies, at least that might kill at least half the rumours, right?" he added with a wan smile. "At least people won't keep thinking I'm your boytoy."

Jim snorted and his lips quirked in a small, unhappy smile. Reaching out, he gripped Blair's shoulder, and then drew him into a hug. "I wish I could make things right," he murmured sadly. "You deserve a better life than this."

"I've got the life I want," Blair asserted and then gently pulled away. "So ease up on yourself, okay? I'm not a kid, Jim. You don't have to protect me from the jerks and the bullies. Hell, man, I learned a long time ago how to survive in the playground. I learned not to care that the other kids thought I was weird or different or that I didn't 'belong' 'cause I was new in the neighbourhood. This isn't a whole lot different and it's not like I haven't been around for going on four years already. It won't take long for people to to just accept that I'm not going anywhere, that I'm in for the long haul. You don't have to be my bodyguard."

Jim grimaced and rubbed a hand over his mouth, but he nodded reluctantly. Still, he hesitated and a slight frown puckered his brow as he stared into the distance.

"What?" Blair asked.

Jim looked at him and he shrugged almost helplessly. "I still feel that itch, Chief," he muttered uneasily. "Like like there's something I'm missing. Like there's a threat I'm not figuring out here."

Sandburg studied him thoughtfully. "Okay," he allowed. "Maybe there is something almost subliminal going on, that you're picking up unconsciously. You said that you feel as if we're being watched, right?"

Jim nodded but didn't add anything.

"And maybe you've heard something at the station? On the street? Something that you didn't quite catch maybe. A tone or a phrase?"

"Maybe," Jim agreed distantly.

"Alright, well, all we can do right now is try to be alert pay attention when you get a warning buzz or whatever that itch means. You said it was sort of, but not quite, like what you felt when Alex hit town, right? Like someone or something is invading your territory, maybe?"

Jim's gaze flickered to his and held as he nodded. "Yeah," he muttered, impatience in his tone, irritated that he couldn't grasp whatever it was.

"Okay, well, let it go for now," Blair said briskly. When Jim gave him a startled look, he went on, "If you relax and think about other stuff, it might surface on its own. And maybe it's just the pressure and all the shit going on downtown that's got your senses rattled." When Jim looked like he was about to argue, Blair held up his hands to forestall further fruitless discussion. "I'm not saying that it is just that it could be." Glancing at the files stacked on the table, he added, "In the meantime, partner, we've got our work cut out for us and we should probably get at it."

"Yeah, you're right," he agreed somberly, but he looped an arm around Blair's shoulders briefly as they moved to the table. "You're sure you're okay with with everything?" he asked uncertainly.

Blair flashed him a genuine grin as he nodded. "Yeah, man. So long as I get to keep working with you, I'm good."

"Okay, then," Jim replied and allowed some of the tension to ease out of his body. As they settled at the table and each opened a file, he suggested, "You know, if we get through these by tomorrow night, we could maybe go fishing on the weekend."

"Now that sounds like a plan I could get behind," Blair agreed enthusiastically, relieved to see an all-too-rare smile flit over his friend's face. As he turned his attention to the file in front of him, he dared to hope that they'd finally made some progress in clearing the air and lightening the tension between them.

********************

That night, lying on his back and staring up at the skylight, Jim rubbed at the dull ache in his chest as he reflected on what Blair had said that afternoon: 'It won't take long for people to to just accept that I'm not going anywhere, that I'm in for the long haul.'

God, he hoped it was true, both that people would accept it and leave them alone, and that Blair really was going to stay for the long haul. But he'd been painfully honest when he'd revealed his fear that it would all prove to be too much too much aggravation, too much hassle and that Blair would throw in the towel and move on, disappear from his life. Or that Blair would decide that he really didn't want to be a cop after all, and decide it was all a huge mistake. Thinking about how angry he'd gotten as he'd listened to Cindy Lou's harmless flirting earlier in the day, he grimaced and swallowed against the sudden dryness of his mouth and throat, and the ache in his chest sharpened. He wasn't entirely sure what that ache was about, but he knew it had something to do with his fear of Blair leaving, of things changing. He didn't want to think too much about why he didn't want anything to change between them or in their life together. So, instead, he worried at the feeling that there was something else that had disturbed him. Something he'd picked up on but he couldn't quite grasp. He had a vague impression of a low comment, almost a whisper, 'It's all set,' with a nasty tone of hate, maybe? Something he'd heard just as Blair had come out of the Records Unit and was heading toward him. Something about the auction? What the hell was it?

His lip twisted and his jaw tightened as he wondered if what he'd felt had been jealousy, pure and simple. That the only threat was the threat that Blair might fall in love with someone and want to move on. Was that it? Was he really that petty? That needy? That unwilling to countenance any change in their relationship? That possessive. Blowing a long breath, Jim pressed his eyes closed and slowly shook his head. He didn't want to be that kind of person. Blair Blair meant the world to him and he really wanted the kid to be happy, to have a good life. But the ache peaked again, filling his chest, pressing into his throat when he thought about Blair wanting another kind of life.

Frustrated, he rolled onto his side and punched his pillow into a more comfortable shape. Closing his eyes, he focused his attention on the soft sounds of Blair's breathing and heartbeat. 'The first real smile anyone and I mean anyone has given me in a month!' Was that true? Jim frowned and scrubbed at his forehead, dredging up memories of the past uncomfortable month. 'I'm talking about being sick and tired of everyone treating me like someone just died, like I'm either fragile or or something offensive. Jesus, Jim, you follow me around, looming like the wrath of God if someone looks at me sideways or mutters something you don't want to hear. And you you're the worst of all. You you're miserable all the damned time. You're not sleeping, you pick at your food, you get angry at the least little thing, and I'm fed up with your self-imposed suffering. If I can pick up the pieces and move on, why can't you?'

It was true, Jim realized, chagrined. The people who knew or guessed at the truth typically gazed at Blair with unspoken but heartfelt grief for what he'd gone through, and what he'd given up; those that didn't treated Sandburg like a pariah. And he'd been no better than anyone else. Though he'd only wanted to provide a protective presence, Blair had been caught in the terrible isolation of one obviously very lonely man who was doing his best to pick up the pieces and face his new life as best he could, with little real support or understanding from anyone. Sighing, Jim gazed bleakly into the darkness. For all he'd been doing his best to be supportive, he'd only succeeded in frustrating Blair and and, well, leaving himself lonely and isolated as well.

Fleetingly, he wondered why Blair was so committed to him, why Blair had given up so much for him. It occurred to him that if he knew the answers to those questions, if he understood why Blair had made those choices and sacrifices a month ago, then he might not feel like it was all too good to last. But, deep down, he was afraid it was misguided guilt or misplaced loyalty, or something equally as ephemeral and unlikely to last, so he let the questions drift away as he always did. Then he frowned with the memory of Blair's other comments, that the kid felt like a puppet on a string and that he thought Jim didn't seem to have a clue about how to be happy. Those comments bothered him a lot but there was nothing he could do, then and there, to deal with them.

He wasn't sure that there was anything that could be done. He wasn't unhappy exactly, just unsettled and uncertain; uncomfortable with the lies and bullshit, and with the undeserved crap that Blair had to deal with since the press conference. Hell, as far as being happy went, he'd been ecstatic when the kid had said he'd take the training necessary to earn the badge. Ecstatic and immensely relieved that what they had, their friendship and partnership, wasn't over but would be a constant in his life. Frowning, he wondered if Blair had any idea how happy he'd been and still was at Sandburg's decision to stay and be his partner. He just sort of assumed that Blair knew, but maybe he didn't.

Grimacing, Jim closed his eyes. He felt like a rat in a maze, running as fast as he could to to find a way out of what increasingly seemed to be a closed loop. Frustrated, exhausted, he willed his mind to force the futile thoughts away and he allowed the simple reassurance of the sounds of Blair's presence in the room below lull him into sleep. Just as he slipped into unconsciousness, he heard a distant, barely audible drawl in the depths of his memory. 'You're a good girl, Gail. I'm real proud of you, darlin'. Real proud.' But it was fleeting and ephemeral and was soon lost again in the far reaches of his unconscious mind.

********************

Fortified by endless cups of coffee, they made good progress on the file review the next day, finishing it by mid-afternoon. With a gratified grunt of accomplishment, Jim closed the last folder and slapped it on the stack of those already completed.

"So, that's it," Blair sighed as he leaned back in his chair and drained his mug. "If there is a challenge at some point that you used your senses to gain a conviction, we can definitively show that you followed due process all the way along and the evidence chain is clear."

Nodding, Jim grimaced at his own empty cup and stood to make a fresh pot. "The staff in Records must be wondering why there was such an urgent rush on reviewing all our files from the past four years," he observed wearily, more than able to imagine the gossip.

Chuckling, Sandburg shook his head. "Nope, Rhonda has that covered."

Intrigued, Jim looked up from measuring out the freshly ground beans. "Really? I must've missed that. What's her story?"

"Well, she said she put the word out that we were going through them to make sure that I'd never over-reached my role as observer, and compromised the investigations," he explained. "She apparently pointed out that while I was an observer, it hadn't really occurred to anyone to check, but since I'm a cop now, the question might arise about whether I'd taken liberties in investigations before having the right to, well, investigate."

"It's plausible," Jim allowed. Leaning against the kitchen counter and crossing his arms while he waited for the coffee to percolate, he mused, "You think people buy it?"

Shrugging, Blair rose to rinse the dregs from his mug. "Most will, probably; especially the ones who want to be sure I toe the line and pay my dues, like everyone else has to do. Others, the ones we've worked with most over the years nah. Your senses are something of an open secret in Major Crimes, or they wouldn't have gone along with Simon keeping me. And I'd be surprised if the people in Forensics and some of the uniforms on the crime scenes over the years haven't noticed that you pick up stuff that others don't." When Jim's expression clouded, he lightly touched his partner's arm and hastened on, "That doesn't mean they're thinking bad things about you, man. Just that they appreciate the need to be careful, you know? The people that matter still trust us, both of us."

"If you say so, Chief," he grunted as he turned to pour two fresh mugs of steaming coffee, wishing he could really believe that. Taking their mugs, they moved back to the table to pick at the muffins and donuts left over from breakfast. "You heard from Naomi yet?" he asked then, as if changing the subject.

"No," Blair replied, his tone indulgent. "It'll take her a while to process the fact that her darling baby boy has grown up to be a pig. She took it well, but it had to be a major shock to her system and her aura is probably still out of whack. I figure another month, maybe two, of meditation and she'll be okay with it."

Jim's brow quirked and his lip twisted, betraying his irritation, but he refrained from comment. Instead, he asked, "You given any more thought to suing the pants off Berkshire Publishing?"

Blair picked apart a dry muffin, and then set the broken bits aside. "Yes, I have," he finally replied slowly. "At first, I was inclined to let it go, let it all die down. But, now that we've got some distance from it and I've made a career change, I think I can credibly argue that I never intended it to be a dissertation, that I was planning on leaving academia, and I'd written it for my own amusement. They had no right to publish any excerpts of it that was a wanton violation of my intellectual property rights. And, well, a settlement from them would go a long way toward clearing off my student debt load. So I thought I'd talk to Legal Aid next week, to get something going." He looked up at Jim. "That's if you're okay with me going ahead. There could be some residual publicity ."

"Me? I'm fine with it suing them would reinforce the fact that you'd never intended its release and I hope you make them pay through the nose for violating your rights."

Blair brightened and, his appetite returning, he popped a good-sized piece of muffin into his mouth. "You still want to go fishing?" he asked, the words a bit garbled.

Giving him a pained look, Jim replied dryly, "If I understood those muffin-muffled words, yeah, I figure we can pack up tonight and head out early tomorrow morning."

Swallowing first, Blair enthused with a grin, "Great!"

Haunted by Sandburg's comments of two days before, Jim did his best to scare up the ghost of a grin in return. But from the way Blair's gaze flickered and then fell away, he figured his attempt hadn't been particularly successful. Dammit, it was hard to raise a smile when his chest was aching from the pathos of his friend's simple joy at the thought of two days fishing, when all he could see when he looked at Blair was the kid's expression when he stood behind that microphone and and died another kind of death. Abruptly, he stood and busied himself with clearing the table, stacking the files neatly and then ferrying dirty dishes to the sink. "Well, then, let's get cracking," he said with forced cheerfulness. "Make a list of the supplies we'll need to pick up on the way while I clean up, and then we can get our gear together. We'll, uh, we'll order in an early dinner."

********************

Blair was yawning and, predictably, shivering in the post-dawn chill as he huddled in his jacket, but he made no complaint about their early departure. The weather didn't look promising. Clouds hovered over the distant peaks and the wind was sharp, but at least it wasn't raining. Sandburg dozed for the first hour of the drive, and then roused himself when Jim stopped at the local village store where they shopped whenever they were in the area. Less than an hour later, they were again on the road, heading through the forest toward the campground along a picturesque river. For the rest of the journey, Blair chattered cheerfully about whatever came to mind, the weather, the likelihood of catching some fish before it started to rain, how beautiful it all was, how clean the air. Talking about nothing much to pass the time and fill the silence between them.

Once they reached the campsite, they quickly set up their tent and unloaded their supplies and gear, securing the camp before pulling on waders and ambling to the river bank with their poles and nets. The sun was valiantly doing its best to burn off some of the cloud cover, and light spangled on the water. The trees and the high wall of the mountain slope across the river cut the wind, and they could hear birdsong and the chittering of a squirrel as they sloshed into the water, venturing out until the river flowed over their knees. Flicking their poles, the lines flashed over their shoulders and back, the glittering flies falling to dance lightly on the surface. Gradually, the peace and tranquility of their surroundings sank into them, and tension eased from their shoulders and backs.

An hour passed serenely while they flicked their lines, reeling in slowly and casting again, and again. And then Blair gave a low, triumphant hiss, "Yesss!" when he got a bite and he flashed a grin at Jim before letting the line play out before carefully drawing the fish in. When Blair pulled it from the water a few minutes later, Jim was ready with the net, and he gracefully swept it under the wriggling body, the iridescent scales of the ten-pound trout shimmering silver in the light. Carefully, Blair removed the hook, and then Jim carried the catch to shore, to wrap it in moist leaves to keep it fresh for their lunch.

An hour later, Jim caught his own fish, another good-sized trout that would do nicely for dinner. With a soft cheer of congratulations, Blair slipped the net closed, tying it off and then securing the captured fish in the shallows where it would live for the rest of the afternoon. After that, having enough food for the day but reluctant to leave the quiet pleasure of the water, they released what they caught, stopping only briefly at noon to cook Blair's fish over a campfire and savour its delicate flavour before venturing back into the water.

When the sun dipped behind the mountain and the shadows began to lengthen, stealing the heat from the day, they decided to go for a walk before dinner. "God, it's beautiful here," Blair murmured as they sauntered along the river, occasionally casting smooth stones to watch them skip before sinking from sight.

"Yeah, it is," Jim agreed quietly with a slow smile, before moving closer to loop his arm around his friend's shoulders and turn him back toward their camp. While Jim cleaned and prepared the fish, Blair chopped vegetables for a stirfry, and they set both pans over the flames. In minutes, the meal was ready and, while Jim dished up, Blair put on a pot of coffee. The homey scent of woodsmoke, freshly cooked food and coffee mingled with the sharp, clean tang of the pines; the gurgle of the river joined with soft whisper of wind and birds twittering in the trees to create natural harmonics to accompany the simple meal.

But the light was going fast as dark, heavy clouds gathered overhead, and the flames danced wildly in the freshening wind.

"Gonna rain," Blair observed philosophically with a glance at the heavens.

"And soon," Jim replied with a sniff and glance toward the west, where the clouds were heaviest. "Let's clean up and secure everything before it hits."

The next few minutes were a scramble of activity, as Blair took their pots, plates and implements to the water, and Jim banked the fire before carrying their supplies into the tent. Sandburg had barely gotten back and inside when the first curtain of rain rushed past, splattering the ground heavily. Lightning streaked the sky just before thunder boomed overhead, and Jim flinched, ducking his head instinctively as he covered his ears.

"Whoa, that was loud," Blair exclaimed softly as he reached out to grip Jim's arm. "Get the dial down, man," he urged, his tone low and calm.

Nodding, Jim drew a deep breath and let it out slowly before lifting his head and sighing as the pain eased. Thunder rumbled again and wind buffeted the sides of the tent, chilling the air. Rain pattered harder on the canvas, falling so thick and fast that their view of the river outside was obscured. Jim turned on a small lantern and reached for the coffee pot to pour two mugs, handing one to Blair, who took it gratefully. Hunched against the cold, sitting so closely together their shoulders touched, they sipped the hot beverage and listened to the storm.

Blair took a deep breath of the rain-cleansed air and let it out in a long, satisfied sigh. "This was a really great day, man," he said, leaning a little against Jim to reinforce his words. "Thanks for suggesting we come up here."

Feeling the slight shiver of cold rippling through his friend's body, wordlessly Jim draped an arm around Blair's shoulders to warm him, and was warmed in his turn by the quick smile of gratitude before Sandburg bowed his head to sip again at his coffee. "Chief," he asked, oddly hesitant, "could we talk?"

Startled by the tone, Blair looked up, surprise and concern darkening his eyes. "Talk? Sure. About what?"

Avoiding eye contact, Jim shrugged diffidently and took a small gulp of coffee. Unconsciously, he tightened his grip around Blair's shoulders and his hand rubbed slowly up and down Sandburg's arm. Swallowing, he said uncertainly, "You said a few things the other day that, well, that I've been thinking about ever since." Blair's eyes narrowed and a small frown furrowed his brow, but he didn't say anything, so Jim continued, "About feeling like a puppet on the end of my string. And, uh, and that you think I don't know how to be happy."

His lips parting, Blair's gaze fell away and he shifted uneasily. "I'm sorry," he said. "I was upset and and I shouldn't've said that stuff."

"Do you really feel like some kind of puppet that's getting jerked around?" Jim persisted, unwilling to just let it go. But when he felt Blair stiffen beside him, he wondered if he should have left well enough alone.

Sandburg slowly turned the half-empty coffee mug in his hands. "Sometimes," he admitted finally, his voice low. Lifting his face to look directly at Jim, he continued solemnly, "But not the way you think." His gaze drifted around the tent as he sought for words to express his feelings. "It's not that I feel you're jerking me around, not at all. And taking the badge, becoming a cop, that's not about being your puppet, or only doing what you want me to do I'm doing what I want to do. But but when you follow me all over the PD, and don't let me handle things on my own, I feel as if you don't trust me, or as if, I don't know, as if you don't think I'm capable of handling myself, you know?" Looking back at Jim, he added hurriedly, "I know you're just trying to protect me, man, and I appreciate it. But sometimes it's suffocating. And it gives people the impression that that either I need to be watched, or that that I'm not man enough to look after myself in what we both know is a hostile environment."

His lips thinning in chagrin, Jim's gaze dropped away as his shoulders sagged in discouragement. "I I want to make things easier, that's all," he muttered.

Gripping his knee firmly, Blair gave him a little shake. "I know that, Jim. Honestly, I do know that and I guess that's why I didn't say anything right away, when I should have. But I can handle the jerks, Jim. And, maybe more importantly, they have to see that I can handle them, you know? You've got to give me some space." When Jim sighed and nodded unhappily, Blair nudged into him with his shoulder. "C'mon, don't feel bad. I know it's been hard on you, too." When Jim still didn't say anything, Blair sighed and leaned his head against Jim's shoulder. Staring out at the night, he murmured quietly, "Actually, I think it's been harder on you than on me. For one thing, you can hear a lot more of the bullshit than I can. For another, it's put your own position the respect that you've earned in question with some of your colleagues."

"I don't care about..." Jim growled, but Blair cut in firmly, "It has to hurt, man, whether you admit it or not. You said so yourself the other day that it's a mess. That your reputation as well as mine has been called into question, at least in some minds. And I'm really, really sorry about that." Sighing, he pushed his hair behind his ear. "But if we don't let them get to us, if we just do our jobs, we'll get past this. I know we will. Besides, it's not like we've got a lot of choice but to, well, just live with it until things get back to normal."

"Normal?" Jim echoed hollowly as he drew Blair closer and rested his chin on his friend's head. "What's normal, Chief?"

Snickering softly, Blair allowed, "That's a good question, man. Normal for us, I guess. Doing what we've been doing for years solving crimes. Me helping you with your senses when you need it, watching your back. Except I'll be able to do that better, now that I've finally accepted the need to be trained."

"You always did just fine," Jim told him, his voice tight.

"Thanks. I appreciate that," Blair murmured huskily. But then he cleared his throat and said more firmly, "You've got to let the guilt go, Jim. Over what happened. I don't know how many different ways I can say it, but none of it was your fault. And it turned out okay. There's nothing to feel guilty about."

Tensing, Jim started to shift away, but Blair snaked an arm around his waist and held him close. "Don't pull away, man," he entreated. "Please. This is tearing us both apart. It's more important than anything those assholes at the station can ever say or do. If we can't get past this, we've got real trouble."

For long minutes, there were only the sounds of the rain beating on the tent and splashing into puddles on the ground outside, and the whine of the wind cracking through the branches of the trees around them, snapping the canvas of the tent. Finally, Jim sighed heavily and then asked distantly, "How can you say this is what you want?" Grimly, he carried on, "You gave up your career, everything you've worked half your life for. You never wanted to carry a weapon. Getting mixed up with me is probably just about the worst thing that ever happened to you. Your life would be so much different. Hell, Chief of course I feel guilty. You lost everything, up to and including your reputation for honesty, let alone your dreams, because of me, my senses. If ..."

But whatever else he might have said was cut off when Blair smacked the back of his head sharply as he sat up and twisted around to face Jim squarely. "Enough!" he practically bellowed. "For God's sake, Jim! Who chased after you four years ago begging to be allowed into your life? To work with you? Huh? And why did I do that? Do you remember? Yes, absolutely, for my career, my life's work. And what was that life's work about?" When Jim didn't answer or look at him, he gripped Jim's arms and shook him. "Finding a sentinel!" he insisted vehemently. "That was my dream, you know that! God, I told you nearly two years ago that I had enough material for a dissertation, but I didn't write it because I didn't want to stop working with you." When Jim's gaze rose to meet his, and he could still see uncertainty there, he went on compellingly, "You're my holy grail, Jim not some stupid paper about you. Not some degree. You're my career, man, not some musty lecture hall filled with indifferent students and interminably dull faculty meetings. When that paper was leaked, you're right. I nearly lost my dream, nearly lost everything that held any meaning for me. I nearly lost my chance to keep working with you. That that press conference was absolutely an act of utter desperation. I could only hope and pray it would be enough to to maybe fix things between us. So we could at least still be friends. And I didn't know when we met up at the hospital afterward I didn't know if would be enough. When you said you insisted that I'd given up my life, I agreed with you, but I didn't mean the university. I meant you, working with you, because I thought it had gone too far to ever be salvaged. But, but you and Simon you guys saved me, man. When you offered me the badge you guys saved me. Saved my dream. Let me have my life back. Don't you understand that? That that's all I wanted, all I ever wanted? Just to keep working with, living with, you."

His voice cracked and he had to swipe at his eyes. Jim looked away, embarrassed by the emotion and, seemingly, still sorrowed. "Because I'm a sentinel," he rasped, more to himself than to Blair.

"Only at first," he replied softly, once again leaning against Jim. "But mostly because you're the best friend I've ever had and I love you, man," he said with unaffected candor. "I love working with you. And and if I wasn't there to back you up, I'd always be worrying myself sick about you, about whether you were getting the support you need, or if you were in danger because nobody understands your senses like I do. And, well, over the years, I've come to really love what we do together, you know? Catching the bad guys. Making the city a little safer. Protecting people. I really love being part of all that. And, and I love living with you in the loft, even with all the stupid rules," he added with a gamin grin. "Oh, I know, eventually I guess we'll have to get our own places, but I don't' really want to, you know? I don't want to leave the loft cause it really does feel like home now. I love the times we share together, talking, teasing, watching games, going for walks, or fishing, like this. I love every minute I spend in your company. I've never been happier in my life as I've been these last few years with you, even with the some pretty hairy messes we got ourselves into. But our friendship always helped guide us back home again. Please don't feel guilty for making my dreams come true."

Jim tightened his lips against the emotion that surged in his chest; he sniffed and swallowed hard to clear away the lump that had risen to clog his throat. Turning his head to bury his face in Blair's hair, he asked, "You mean that, Chief?"

"Yeah, man, I do. With all my heart," Blair affirmed, locking his arms around Jim's body, to hug him tightly. "I'm sorry, Jim. I guess I thought that you'd figured that out."

Jim hesitated and then asked the question that had haunted him for weeks. "Then, I don't understand, Chief. I really don't. Why, if you didn't want to quit, why did you write the dissertation and why did you leave my name in it?"

"Ah, Jim," Blair sighed. "It was never meant to be my dissertation, man. I wrote it for you. Only for you. Nobody else was ever supposed to see it."

Closing his eyes tightly, Jim encircled him in a warm embrace, and let his doubts and grief, his guilt seep away. He had to swallow again before he could rasp hoarsely, "You're my best friend, too, Chief. I hope you know that."

"I know that, man," Blair replied teasingly with a watery laugh. "But it's good to finally hear that you know it, too." Sniffing, blinking hard, he pulled a little away. "So, um, are we good now?"

"Yeah, we're good," Jim told him. Fondly, he combed his fingers through Blair's curls, and then asked, "So you really think I don't know how to be happy?"

Huffing a low laugh, Blair shook his head as he sat back and purposefully raked his hair off his face. He gazed at Jim affectionately, his lips curved in a half smile, but sadness lurked in his eyes. "I don't know, man," he murmured. "Sometimes I wonder. I mean, I know you don't reveal your feelings the way I do. And, um, you're more of an introvert you need quiet and peace, tranquility, to be content, whereas I'm a lot more exuberant by nature, more of an extrovert that gets energized by being around people. I think sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, you find me exhausting to be around. And you've had to learn, over and over again, to guard your emotions, to not hope for too much, because well, because people have let you down. Important people. Like your mom and dad, Steven, your senior officers, women you've loved me. It's, uh, hard to be happy if you're worried about letting go and trusting that the good stuff in life will last, you know? Sometimes sometimes I think you're afraid to be happy. As if it might be bad luck, or something. And, well, you never get much time to just be happy, to feel good. There's always some horrific case to work on, and you never quit until it's done and then there's another one and you start all over again with the long hours and the burden of knowing you're running against the clock, trying to catch some perp before he or she kills again. You hardly ever have time to just chill out, you know? To just do things you enjoy doing."

Feeling uncomfortably as if he'd just been stripped bare, as if all his defences had been breached, Jim's gaze jerked away and he frowned as his jaw tightened. Crossing his arms, he wasn't sure what to say or even if there was anything to say. Blair reached out to lightly grip his arm, grounding him, letting him know he wasn't alone; nonverbally giving him the message that it was okay, he didn't have to be strong, not now, not all the time. Grimacing, he sighed. "Well, when you put it like that," he muttered wryly, trying for humour and not quite making it. "Makes me sound like a basket case."

Blair's grip tightened as he hastened to say, "Ah, hey, not at all, man. You're a rock. The strongest, most intrepid guy I've ever known. It's just that that I wish you had more fun, you know? That you had more chance to relax and laugh and, I don't know, just play."

"I do okay," Jim contested with a diffident shrug.

"Jim, do you even know what makes you happy? Or what would make you happier, if you could have or do anything you wanted?" Blair asked gently. "Like, well, for instance, would it be better for you if I, uh, if I finally found a place of my own and let you have your space and your life back?"

"No," he blurted, without thinking, reflexively.

"Well, it's just that I've been wondering, since you went to Clayton Falls that was a pretty clear cry for peace and quiet, you know? And you shouldn't have to leave your own home to find peace."

Jim rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head. Given all that had happened since, how many times he'd come too close to losing Blair seeing him lying dead at the fountain, believing Sandburg was going to leave because of the dissertation disaster he could scarcely remember why he'd thought it so urgent to get away for a few days. About all he recalled about Clayton Falls was how scared he'd been when they'd carried Blair into that isolation tent, terrified that he'd never see his friend alive again. "Moving out wouldn't make me happy, Chief," he asserted firmly.

Blair smiled widely and his eyes sparkled with relief. "Okay," he nodded. "Good, that's good. Cause I didn't really want to move out, you know? But am I right, Jim? That it's not easy for you to be happy? Or that you don't let yourself be happy?"

Rolling his shoulders, Jim shifted and scratched his cheek. "I've never really thought about it," he admitted. "Is this something we really need to talk about?"

Gazing at him bemusedly, Blair replied, "You're the one who brought it up, man. But, no, we don't have to talk about it only "

"Only what, Sandburg?" Jim groused, wondering why he'd thought this was something they should discuss; but he could still hear the plaintive tone that had been in Blair's voice two days before, a kind of anguish underlying his frustration.

"Only I'd like you to be happy, but happiness is a state of mind, a kind of choice nobody else can make us happy," he reflected solemnly. "For instance, can you name five things that really and truly make you feel happy? Or even just the last time you were uncomplicatedly, unconditionally, really, really happy?"

Rubbing his mouth, Jim thought about that. "It's not all that complicated," he finally replied but there was a shy, vulnerable expression on his face when he replied candidly, "The last is easy it was when you agreed to come onboard as my official partner."

Genuinely surprised and deeply touched that his decision had been such welcome news to Jim, he squeaked, "Really? You're not just saying that? Kidding around to placate me?"

"No," Jim returned sardonically, embarrassed by the bright emotion and gratitude gleaming in Blair's eyes. "I thought you knew that."

"Ah, Jim," Blair sighed with a sappy sentimental smile. "You don't know how much it means to me to know that. That it wasn't just a sense of necessity or misplaced guilt in thinking you owed me some kind of lifeline. I am so glad to know you really wanted this official partnership."

Uncomfortable with the emotion brimming in the kid's eyes, Jim waved a hand toward the rain-shrouded river as he said, "And other things that make me happy? Well, doing this, fishing, camping, just being out of the city I enjoy this. I'm happy doing this. Watching a good game on TV. Enjoying a good meal. Getting a really bad guy off the street. That feels good. Really good."

"That's good, man. That's four things that we can make a point of doing as often as possible, and the city will even pay us for one of them. Got one more?" Blair encouraged cheekily.

Jim gazed at him thoughtfully and seemed about to speak, but then he hesitated and looked away. "Four'll do for now," he said, his tone brooking no argument. Blair quirked a brow but resisted making any further comment. Relenting, Jim grinned at him. "Hey, four out of five ain't bad, kid. You happy now?"

Snickering, Blair nodded. "Yeah, man. If you're happy, I'm happy." Tilting his head, he looked up at the canvas above that was still being battered by rain and wind, and added with feigned woefulness, "But I'd be happier if it would stop raining!"

"Yeah, yeah, cold and wet is your world, Chief," Jim teased as he turned to roll out the sleeping bags. Tossing his friend a blanket, he added, "Wrap this around yourself."

Snatching it from the air, Blair pulled the warm wool around his shoulders, grinning merrily as if all was right with his world. "Hey," he said, "it's too early to go to sleep. I brought a deck of cards." Before Jim responded, he pulled his backpack from the corner and rifled in it. Looking up, he waggled his eyebrows. "A little poker, maybe? Or twenty-one?"

"Feeling lucky, are you?"

"Yeah, man. Fortune favours..."

"Fools," Jim interjected, silencing Blair with a finger against his lips, and then laughed at the disconcerted look on Blair's face. "Deal the cards, Chief. I'm feeling brave."

Blair snorted as he pulled the deck from the well-worn package and began to shuffle.

Later, several dollars poorer, Jim listened to the soft snuffling snore of a fast asleep Sandburg and smiled. But his throat thickened and he had to blink at the sting in his eyes as he thought about the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth things in his life that made him happy every day, whether he revealed his feelings openly or not. The sound of Sandburg sleeping nearby. Sandburg giggling merrily. Sandburg, safe and, best of all, part of his life.

********************

The storm had passed by morning, but the ground was wet and clouds still scudded menacingly overhead. Squatting by the fire, scrambling eggs for their breakfast while Jim measured out the coffee for the pot, Blair glanced up at his partner. "Jim?" he asked. "You haven't seemed to be feeling that antsiness out here. Like we're being watched?"

Ellison paused and thought about it. "No," he agreed. "I don't."

"So, maybe it is just the general atmosphere at work," Blair postulated.

"Maybe," he replied slowly, but he didn't sound convinced. Frowning, he tried to grasp the tickle in his mind but it was too fleeting.

Sandburg studied him for a moment and chewed on his lip. "You want to try some focused meditation or light hypnosis, to see if we can tease it out?"

Shaking his head, Jim poured water into the pot and set it on the grill over the fire. "Nah, not today. Let's just enjoy being here, okay?"

"Sure, man," Blair agreed readily, and then dished out the eggs. He swiftly sliced a tomato onto both plates and then handed one to his friend.

After they'd eaten and cleaned up the campsite, they once again donned their waders and headed to the river, planning to fish for the rest of the morning, and then pack up their gear after lunch. There'd be time for a hike, if the weather held, before they had to return to the city.

But they'd only been fishing for little more than an hour when Jim heard the distinctive brill of his cell phone, up in the tent. Cursing under his breath, figuring that nobody would be chasing them down with good news, he slogged out of the river and jogged up the slope. He caught the call on the last ring, just before it tripped over to messaging. "Ellison," he barked, definitely not happy to have their weekend interrupted.

"Jim? Simon," Banks said, his tone grim. "Where are you?"

"We're about two hours out of town, fishing," he replied. "Why? What's up?"

"I just got word that Kincaid is on the loose."

"What? How did that happen? When?"

"Nearly two weeks ago," Simon told him. "They were transporting him to Sheridan, when the van went off the road no witnesses. The vehicle had exploded and all the remains were badly charred. The body count was right but Forensics has just determined that Kincaid wasn't one of them. The Warden called me as soon as he was informed."

"Shit," Jim cursed and rubbed his forehead as he looked down at Blair, who was making his way out of the river to see what was going on. "Okay, we'll head back right away. We'll meet you at the station."

"What's going on?" Blair asked, frowning in concern at the expression on Jim's face.

"Kincaid has been on the loose for two weeks," Jim reported tersely. "C'mon, let's get things packed up. Simon will meet us at the office."

"Oh, man," Sandburg groaned as he squirmed out of his waders. Giving his partner a meaningful look, he ventured, "I'll bet that antsy feeling is back."

"You got that right, Chief," he agreed grimly. As they hastily packed up the camp, and loaded their gear in the truck, he told Blair as much as he knew about what had happened which wasn't a great deal.

"You think he's in Cascade, don't you," Blair stated as he climbed into the truck and buckled the seat belt. "Somehow, you've been sensing him."

"Maybe," he grunted as he turned the ignition switch and put the vehicle in gear. "Not sure."

"Nah, you heard or saw something not him personally, maybe, but something twigged your radar," Sandburg insisted. Staring out at the passing trees as Jim gunned the truck along the rutted road, he braced himself with one hand on the dash. "He told us, man," he grated. "When they hauled him off after the trial, he told us he'd make us pay."

"Yeah, well, he's not the first guy to make that vow," Jim returned phlegmatically. "Goes with the territory." He gave Blair a wry glance and then asked, "You still glad you accepted that badge, Chief?"

Blair turned to face him, and lifted steely eyes to meet his own. "Oh, yeah," he said firmly. "I'll be very glad to officially help put that headcase back behind bars where he belongs." The truck lurched and rocked violently, and he scrambled to keep from banging into the doorframe. "Geez, Jim," he complained, eyes flashing, "would you slow down! We can't catch him if we're dead!"

Ellison quirked a brow and his jaw tightened as his foot pressed down harder on the accelerator. Blair groaned theatrically as he rolled his eyes and shook his head, but he broke into helpless laughter at the wild ride while he concentrated on holding on, and missed the smile that ghosted over Jim's lips before he settled down and focused on his driving.

********************

Just under two hours later, the two detectives strode purposefully through the bullpen and into Simon's office. The Captain looked up as they entered and waved them to the chairs in front of his desk. Holding up a paper-thin file, he said disgustedly, "We've got nothing." Irritably, he slapped it back down on the desk and growled, "There was no real investigation of the 'accident' two weeks ago. The wreck was taken at face value the van appeared to have taken a mountain curve too fast, slid off the edge of the embankment, rolled and burst into flames. The fact that it happened in the middle of the day with no known witnesses on a generally busy highway didn't raise any flags in the prison system. When the transfer vehicle didn't show up as expected, and failed to respond when called, a team went out to trace the route. Smoke was still curling from the wreck and a cluster of state police and rescue vehicles were at the scene when they arrived. Turns out, an anonymous caller tipped off the local state authorities to 'a bad wreck on the highway'. There were the remains of three bodies that were assumed to be the driver, guard and Kincaid. So nobody thought it was urgent to give us the news that Kincaid was apparently dead. The corpses were so badly burned that they needed to do DNA testing in order to release them to the appropriate families for burial. The guard and the driver tested out, but whoever the third guy was, he wasn't Kincaid."

"Kincaid's men hijacked the van, substituted a body and burned the vehicle," Jim summarized tightly.

Nodding, Banks agreed. "Yeah, probably, but where along the route? Who knows? Could have happened right after they left Seatac. There's an isolated strip of road between the prison and the main highway that can't be seen from the guard towers."

"And he's been on the loose for two weeks," Sandburg muttered irritably. "Man, that's twice he's escaped custody in the past year!"

Simon gazed at him balefully but evidently didn't deem the observation of the obvious worth commenting upon. Shifting his focus to Jim, he said flatly, "Kincaid could be anywhere. There's no reason to believe he's in Cascade."

Jim snorted and rolled his eyes. "Right," he rasped dryly. "The only surprise is that we haven't heard from him yet." Standing, he restlessly paced to the window and stared out at the street below. "Is there anything on his contacts while he was inside? Phone calls? Visitors? Who knew he was being transferred and when?" he asked, and then turned to face Banks.

"The Warden is getting the information on visitors and calls compiled," Simon sighed as he wearily pushed up his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "As to who was the informant?" He shrugged. "Could be almost anybody inside either one of the prisons. You know how the system works as well as I do. Model prisoners get a certain degree of latitude and are assigned clerical duties and then pedal the information they scrounge to the highest bidder. A guard who sympathizes with Kincaid's 'cause' and who was informed the transfer was going to take place could have been the leak. Kincaid's troops could have threatened a secretary and coerced the information. Finding out how he got out isn't going to tell us where he is."

"We know he's here," Blair interjected heatedly. When Banks glared at him, and growled, "And you know that exactly how?" he retorted, "Oh, come on, Simon! We all know he can't stand to lose and the three of us have been instrumental in taking him down twice. He's got too much pride to let that go. You need to make sure Daryl is safe and..."

Simon held up a hand to stop the tirade. "Daryl, thank God, is visiting his mother on the East Coast. I've already called the authorities there to ensure they're taken to a safe house," he grated. "But Kincaid's power base has always been here in the west, so I don't think they're in immediate danger."

Sandburg subsided, and sank back into his chair. "So, what is he waiting for? Why hasn't he made a move yet?" he asked, looking from Banks to his partner.

"He's playing with us," Jim replied hollowly. "Setting it up, whatever 'it' is."

Silence fell as the three men considered the situation and what they knew about their adversary. "He can't have much of an army left," Simon mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Most of them are still locked up."

"So another grand gesture, like taking over the PD or the stadium, is probably unfeasible," Blair added.

Jim nodded as he ambled back to his chair and sat down. "So he's more likely to either try to pick us off when we're not looking or or bring us to him, somehow. Using a lure."

Banks frowned. "If he was going to pick us off, he's had two weeks to do it. Nah, I think he wants to make us suffer, grovel maybe."

"That would sure appeal to his ego," Blair muttered.

Looking from one to the other, Simon said conversationally, "You know, standard procedure would suggest that the two of you should be placed in protective custody."

Jim snorted and looked away; Blair laughed humorlessly. "And the same SOP would suggest you should be right there with us," he drawled.

"Okay, now that we've agreed that's not going to happen," Simon returned wryly, "let's get our act in gear. We need to trace his potential supporters in town, follow up on men who were probably in his organization but not part of his last two operations. Friends, relatives, known associates. We should have the visitor and recent contact information from the Warden by tomorrow. Gentlemen, we have our work cut out for us."

"Then I guess we'd better get started," Jim agreed dryly as he stood.

Pushing himself to his feet, Blair muttered, "Well, it was a fun weekend while it lasted."

"The fishing was good, huh?" Simon observed archly as he leaned back in his chair.

Pausing in the doorway, Jim said over his shoulder, "Yeah, real good."

"Hummph," Banks muttered, aggrieved. "Nice of you to invite your friends."

"Ah, hey, Simon," Blair apologized with a stricken expression. "We only decided to go at the last minute and, uh, we only have a two person tent, you know?"

"I do have my own tent, Sandburg," he rumbled, patently unappeased. "A simple phone call was all that it would have taken."

When Blair looked utterly crestfallen, Jim and Simon exchanged glances and both burst out laughing. Waving them on their way, Banks chuckled, "You're too easy, Sandburg. Way too easy."

Belatedly realizing they'd been yanking his chain but good, he gave them both stern looks, and wagged a finger at each of them as he threatened, "I'll get you for that and it won't be pretty."

"Yeah, yeah," Simon smirked. Pleased to have lightened their mood, he growled with playful ferocity, "Go on, get to work!"

Flipping him mock salutes, they headed purposefully to their desks.

********************

Day after long frustrating day passed as they chased down promising leads and got nowhere fast. Oh, they tracked down a dozen probable members of the Sunrise Patriots, but none of them were still at their last known addresses, nobody knew where they'd gone, and they'd dropped totally out of sight. Not even their most reliable snitches had anything for them. Two weeks now going on three had been more than enough time for Kincaid to get his ducks in line and, more than once, they cursed the fact that they'd not known he could be at large until it was too late to get a handle on his activities.

"He's got to be holed up somewhere, either in the city or close," Blair muttered in frustration as he searched through recent real estate and rental records. "Somebody's got to buy food for them."

His palms pressed together, fingertips at his lips, Jim scowled as he thought about that. They'd papered the city with wanted notices and posters and every cop on patrol had been thoroughly briefed on the men to keep a lookout for, as well as the vehicles registered to those men. Nothing. Not a whisper.

"He's gotta have a front person," he said flatly. "Someone nobody is noticing."

Tapping a pen on his desk blotter, Blair looked over at his partner. "Somebody who seems innocuous. Innocent. But, man, that sure doesn't fit the usual Aryan hunter profile of his recruits."

Jim licked his lips and nodded, his head cocked slightly to the side as if straining to hear something.

"What?" Blair asked, his voice pitched low as he looked around the bullpen. "You hearing something?"

"Huh?" Ellison grunted, looking up and appearing distracted until he blinked and focused, though he rubbed absently at one ear. "No. No. It's just that that I feel like I'm missing something."

"Something you heard," Blair postulated, squinting as he thought about the implications of Jim's evidently unconscious mannerisms that linked to his hearing.

Grimacing with frustration, Jim threw up his hands. "I don't know!" he growled.

"Okay, okay. Relax let it go," Sandburg soothed. "It'll surface. Just needs the right trigger. When we get home tonight, if you want, we can try some focused meditation."

The muscle in Jim's jaw rippled as he gazed at his partner. He didn't enjoy meditation like Sandburg did relinquishing even that margin of control always left him feeling vulnerable. Reluctantly, he nodded. There wasn't much choice.

But, later, when they settled in the living room after dinner, the attempt proved to be an exercise in futility because they didn't know what might have alerted Jim subliminally, or where, or when. So there was no point to use as a reference for enhanced concentration and memory retrieval.

"I'm sorry, man," Blair sighed after having tried various generic promptings, like whether Jim remembered a scent or seeing someone that had left him wary or uncomfortable. When he'd asked in his low, mellow tones if Jim had heard anything that had triggered concerns, Jim opened one eye and arched a wry brow, and then they both snorted and shook their heads. Jim had scarcely been hearing anything else. It was all just too vague.

Jim looked away, discouraged but not wanting Blair to feel responsible for his failure to grasp the itch in his head, to make sense of it. "Nah, that's okay," he replied quietly. "You were right in the first place, I guess. If I stop worrying at it and just relax, the right situation or trigger will probably bring it back."

********************

The next morning, Blair emerged from his room wearing a snowy white shirt, his blue tapestried vest, and well-worn, skin-tight jeans. He was inserting a second small hooped earring and his hair was still damp and tightly curled from the shower. Jim observed the vest and the earrings with some surprise as, in his mind, the attire would always shout 'student' to him. "You haven't worn that in a while, Chief."

Looking up, Blair grinned. "Student grunge, man. The ladies love it and the hair. Gives me an aura of perpetual youth and energy."

"Ladies?" Jim echoed.

"Hey, c'mon, you remember," Sandburg insisted cheerfully as he poured himself coffee. "The charity auction is this afternoon. I thought these clothes might, um, enhance the product."

Giving him a sardonically assessing look, as if to suggest that there wasn't much that was ever going to enhance that particular product, Jim carried two plates of scrambled eggs to the table. "Chief, we're in the middle of trying to find Kincaid and you know we're both probably targets. I'm not sure wasting time making a spectacle of yourself on stage this afternoon is the best idea. In fact, I think it's a stupid idea."

"Oh, hold on a minute," Blair protested, his tone congenial but with an edge of vehemence. "First of all, anything we can do to benefit homeless and underprivileged kids is a good thing, Jim maybe save ourselves some trouble in the future if a few of them don't end up choosing crime as a career. And second, every cop who isn't on duty will be at the auction so it's probably the safest place in the city to be. I don't understand what your problem is with this auction, man." Sliding into his chair and picking up his fork to stab at some egg fragments, he went on, "We've been trying to find Kincaid for a week with no luck. So, you know what? I think taking a couple hours off for a good cause isn't a bad thing to do."

Jim picked up a small glass of orange juice and looked pointedly at Blair's vest and earrings. "And that get-up is going to go a long way to winning the respect and confidence of all those other cops in the hall," he said sarcastically.

All trace of light-hearted animation seeped from Sandburg's face, and his shoulders sagged a bit, as if suddenly weary. He picked at his food and said hollowly, "Yeah, well, I could get a crew cut and be this year's uniformed poster-boy but I don't think that would change anyone's opinion." He flicked a quick look at Jim before focusing back on the food he wasn't eating. "I have to be me, man. I can do the job and be a good cop, but I have to be me." Shrugging, he muttered, "Besides, I'd fit right in with the Vice crowd."

"Not hardly," Jim grunted, but his tone had lightened, held a teasing quality. "You're a little too wholesome to hang around with that bunch."

Blair looked up through his lashes and quirked a brow. "Wholesome?"

Jim grinned and nodded. "Yeah. With that baby-face, you look like you could be doing that commercial; you know the one with the kid who says, 'Ever since I was little, I've loved blueberries'."

"Oh, how to shoot a guy down," Blair groaned dramatically, but the sparkle was back in his eyes. "I'm going for sexy, here, you know? To get those bids up? Not prepubescent."

Jim just smirked and shook his head doubtfully before giving attention to his food. But he grinned to himself when he heard the soft snickering from the other end of the table, and was glad to note that Blair had evidently regained his appetite.

But the levity bled out of his face when he thought again about the auction. He didn't know why, couldn't explain it, but he felt almost furious dread every time he thought about Blair taking part in it. What was it about the damned auction that had him so on edge?

********************

The ground floor auditorium of the Cascade PD, more often used for training sessions, large media briefings and force-wide dissemination of urgent information, was packed with uniformed and civilian staff a half hour before the day shift ended and the evening shift began, to give everyone who chose a chance to participate. Arts and crafts booths, along with those selling homemade jams, jellies, sauces and baked goods crowded the corners below the stage and ranged along the back of the hall. Eager shoppers crowded the open floor space between the stage and the first row of seats and milled around the booths in the back. When the MCU crowd arrived just before the auction was scheduled to begin, they found nearly all the chairs filled and, unlike church, there were only a few in the last rows that weren't occupied. It was noisy, filled with laughing voices and people calling and waving to one another, and Jim winced before hastily ratcheting down his sense of hearing.

"Told ya," Sandburg chuckled, elbowing him gently. "Every cop who can be here is here, just like every year. And so is just about everyone else who works for the PD."

Ellison nodded grudgingly, still vastly uncomfortable with the idea of his partner mounting the stage to be auctioned off that afternoon. But he couldn't argue with the cause. For the last seven years, Cascade PD had proudly presented thousands of dollars to the local charities concerned with the welfare of children, and the big money maker had always been the auction of members of the police force who volunteered to take the winner to dinner in the restaurant of their choice. Though most winners were conscious that cops weren't paid in gold ducats, some took full advantage of the win and chose the most exclusive restaurants in town so the volunteers never knew if they'd get off lightly or end up having to contribute more than a week's pay for the good of the cause.

Typically, it was the younger, better looking members of the force who entered the auction. But the senior officers also did their bit as, often, younger, ambitious staff chose the opportunity of the promised dinner to obtain some coaching or mentoring advice, or simply to become known to their superiors. For the most part, it was men who took the stage, but in the last few years, as more and more women joined the force and attained higher ranks, they, too, did their bit by coming under the spotlight to strut or clown around until the hammer fell and the winner claimed them. By tradition, the promised dinner occurred on the following evening, unless the cop in question was on duty. The mood was always lighthearted, the atmosphere alive with amusement and sense of fun. And there was always some speculation on who bid on whom, for it wasn't unheard of for an auction win to lead to a marriage later in the year.

Sandburg ambled over to the table in the corner where he was assigned his number for the auction, and he was surprised that he wasn't allocated the expected number seven. Rhonda, who was sitting behind the table doing the registration noted his startled expression and grinned. "We thought we should save the best for last," she crooned with a wink.

Snickering, he chided, "So you say, but you know and I know that I won't go for much, and you're protecting my dignity because everyone will have spent all their money and most of the crowd will have left by the time my turn comes along." Looking around, his expression almost wistful, he added quietly, "Besides, given the current environment, bidding on me isn't exactly a way to win respect or a high approval rating in the department."

"Hmm, we'll see," she replied cryptically, and then turned to the next guy who was waiting to sign in for his number. "Head backstage about three numbers before yours comes up, to be ready," she told him over her shoulder as he was moving away. He waved to show he understood and then rejoined his colleagues, taking the seat on the aisle that they'd held for him.

Shortly after, the Police Chief took the podium, calling the crowd to order, welcoming everyone and encouraging their generosity toward a great cause. Once the applause had died down, a hush settled over the auditorium and the auction began.

The bidding was fast and good-humoured, and the buyers were generous, with bids ranging upward to a peak of five hundred and forty dollars, though most topped out around the three hundred level. Though some of the crowd left when the shift change occurred, it seemed that even more surged in after the day shift ended, until there was standing room only. Looking around, Jim figured that every woman in the department was in the room, with the very few exceptions of on-duty female officers and Dispatch staff. He was interested to note that Cindy Lou, from Records, was surrounded by her whole team, and they all seemed to be vibrating with excitement as they craned their necks to see his partner and, giggling, pointed him out to one another. His gaze narrowed as he scanned the group, and the unsettled feeling in his gut got worse. Looking away, he told himself it was ridiculous. He knew most of them, at least to nod at in the corridors. They were file clerks, there to see their supervisor win a date with Blair, eager to cheer her on and tease her they were scarcely any threat. Glancing at Sandburg, he could see that his partner was well aware of their excited scrutiny, and a slight blush had crept up his throat and over his cheeks. Telling himself that his uneasiness had no basis and he should just be damned glad that at least one unit in the PD seemed to hold only positive feelings about his partner, he leaned over to nudge Sandburg with his elbow and to whisper, "Your fan club seems to be out in force."

Blair snorted in embarrassment and shook his head, but grinned at him happily.

When the auction got to the nineteenth entry, Blair pushed himself up, waving off the low hoots and teasing from his comrades as he began to make his way to the front. Jim's grin faded when he picked up on less congenial low mutterings as others noticed him moving forward and the fact that he was carrying one of the numbered squares.

"Take it easy," Simon murmured beside him, having noted his sudden tension. "Nobody's going to make trouble here." He paused and then said quietly, "I give the kid credit for having the guts to do this, to get up there when he knows there's a lot of hostility in some quarters about his appointment."

"Yeah," Jim grunted in response and did his best to relax. But his gaze continued to range over the crowd, noting those who seemed the most disgruntled about Blair's presence in their fraternity. As if alerted by some sixth sense, one or two of the worst grumblers seemed to feel his animosity flowing over them and looked up and around, a startled look in their eyes when they found him staring daggers at them. And he could see speculation flare in their eyes before their gaze fell away, thinking about what they'd just been saying and perhaps wondering wondering just how good his hearing might really be. He knew he was daring them to figure out the truth and he didn't care.

Finally, the penultimate auction was concluded with raucous cheers, and number twenty-two was called for the final event of the afternoon. The Major Crimes gang whistled and clapped as Blair strutted toward the centre of the stage, but their enthusiastic support was all but drowned out by the roar of high-pitched cheers and applause by the women in the crowd. Surprised, they straightened up and looked at one another, and then slow grins spread over their faces as they realized that this auction might be a tad more interesting than they'd expected.

The bid began at fifty dollars but Cindy Lou, eager to establish her claim, shouted out, "Two-fifty!"

Her bid was immediately met by a woman from Forensics, who yelled, "Three hundred."

And then the action really got started, with bids jumping fifty and a hundred dollars being shouted from all around the auditorium. In less than a minute, the bidding was up to a thousand dollars and Blair had stopped posing and grinning brightly, and was frankly gaping at the audience. Cindy Lou upped the ante, jumping by five hundred to fifteen hundred, but Rhonda took it to two thousand.

With each bid, the woman shouting out didn't look toward the stage but focused on one or another of the worst offenders in the Blair-bashing club, until it became abundantly, if uncomfortably for some, clear that a message was being given, loudly and emphatically. Several of the men targeted flushed angrily, and low, aggrieved mutters became louder, and then Sheila Irwin, the new Captain in Internal Affairs stood to yell her bid of twenty-five hundred as she glared around at several of nastier individuals in the crowd and that seemed to give them pause. But the bidding was continuing, the numbers ranging higher and higher, though the increments gradually dropped back to one or two hundred, and finally to fifty dollar raises.

Jim could see that Blair's initial flush of embarrassment had faded, and now he stood pale under the bright lights. He'd begun waving his hands, as if to deny the lofty heights of the bidding, calling out, "Oh, hey, come on this is too much! You can't afford this!"

But the women took no note of his chagrin, except to call out, "You're worth it!"

He raised a hand to cover his mouth, and Jim could see him blinking away the glittering moisture in his eyes. The bidding had just cleared four thousand, and he hoped it would end soon. The point had been made and Blair was dying up there. He'd been right when he'd sensed that something was going to happen at this auction, but he settled back in his seat and crossed his arms, smiling with a grim satisfaction that he'd been wrong to think it would be something bad. The annoying itch in his mind was silenced and he relaxed fully, even basking a little, with the pleasure of witnessing the magnificent gesture of support being accorded his partner by those in the department who typically held powerless roles united in this, they were an awesome force. Glancing at Cindy Lou, he wondered how much longer the auction could go on. Even with all the women in Records pooling their resources to back up her bids, there had to be a limit to what clerks could afford. He saw a young blond he didn't recognize lean toward her supervisor, but he thought her voice was vaguely familiar as she urged, "Go for it. What are credit cards for, anyway?" and he grinned with appreciation.

"Four thousand, seven hundred," Rhonda called.

"Four thousand, eight hundred!" Cindy Lou shouted immediately after, and she turned to Rhonda, her most avid contender and arched a brow.

"Four thousand, nine hundred," the intrepid Rhonda returned.

"Five thousand!" Cindy Lou cried, her smug expression saying she was good for another five, if need be.

Rhonda started to laugh, and bowed to Cindy Lou before shaking her head at the Chief to signal she was done and would go no higher.

"Five thousand is the bid!" Chief Winters called out. "Going once! Going twice! Going going gone! Detective Blair Sandburg goes to Cindy Lou Makins for five thousand dollars!" He turned away from the podium and clapped a very stunned Blair Sandburg on the shoulder and then shook his hand, very evidently thrilled with the funds raised for the charity.

The auditorium erupted in cheers and wild applause as people called out and stamped their feet in riotous approbation.

"Ten times," Henri laughed in awe, applauding vigorously. "Hairboy went for nearly ten times the next closest high bid! Imagine that!"

"Well, hot damn!" Simon cheered as he surged to his feet along with many others in the crowd. Laughing, he turned to Jim. "The women must've set this up, and good for them! Guess it's one way of making the point that the kid is a valued new member of the force!"

"I guess it is," Jim smiled back as he clapped enthusiastically. Turning to look at the very excited Cindy Lou, whose back was being pummeled by slaps of congratulation by her team, he sketched a salute and bowed his head in gratitude. But then he stopped clapping and sighed. "You know, he's not going to like being tailed on his 'date'."

Banks shrugged philosophically. "We all have to get used to things in life we don't like. Joel hasn't complained, but I think he'll be glad when this is all over and he can stop crashing at my place every night. But you were right, earlier today, when we discussed shadowing him; with Kincaid on the loose, we can't take any chances." His gaze on Cindy Lou, who was nearing the front of the auditorium, he gave a long suffering sigh and rumbled, "Let's just hope she doesn't want to go to the most expensive place in town. I doubt the Chief would be amused by those kinds of meal costs on the expense forms. He's already wondering about the cost of the extra uniform patrols parked outside your place and mine every damned night. The tab is beginning to add up and we still don't have anything to show that Kincaid is within five hundred miles of Cascade."

"He's here, Simon," Jim asserted tightly.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Banks nodded. "I'm not arguing with you. I just wish the hell we knew what he's waiting for or, even better, that we could get a lead on him." Jim's lips thinned and he nodded.

At the front of the hall, pushing through the tide of people flowing toward the exit, Cindy Lou loped the last few steps down the aisle to the front, and Blair jumped off the stage to meet her, drawing her into a huge bear hug.

"You're crazy, you know that?" he chided her. "It's too much, way too much!"

"Oh, pshaw, it's for a good cause, an' we all chipped in!" she retorted with a huge grin. "Besides, some of us've been waiting years to see you up on that stage! We're just so glad you decided to join the force. Place wouldn't've been the same without you."

He looked out at the still cheering and applauding crowd, his smile tremulous as he mastered his emotions. "Thank you, Cindy Lou," he said huskily, turning his face to look down at her, his eyes bright with gratitude. "Dinner and dancing, wherever you want tomorrow night, if that works for you."

"Ah, we got the arrangements covered, sweetie pie," she drawled and looked over her shoulder to wave jubilantly at her team, drawing them forward. Turning back to him as the seventeen women ranging in age from eighteen to fifty crowded closer, surrounding them, she added hurriedly, "But don't you worry none, darlin'! You don't have to buy dinner for all of us! Just the first round of drinks and promise to dance with all of us afterward, an' we'll all be real happy! We've already made the reservations at Tarantino's Roadhouse! We'll all meet up there right after work."

"Oh, hey, I promise! It will definitely be my pleasure!" he replied enthusiastically, as he favoured each with a wide smile. "And Tarantino's tomorrow is great. But you made the reservations already?"

"Why, so'nuff," she chimed with a wink. "No way were we about to lose this auction! It was, as they say, a sure thing!"

"You guys are great, you know that?" he enthused, doing his best to give them each a warm hug, though in the confusion, he was afraid he might have missed one or two. Looking up, he saw Jim and the rest of the gang approaching. "Hey, Jim, Captain everyone! These lovely ladies are my dates for tomorrow night!"

The older men laughed indulgently and manfully refrained from making any comments about harums while the women were present.

********************

"Man, that was something else," Blair sighed as he fastened his seat belt. "I was like, stunned, when the bids kept going into the stratosphere!"

"I know, I could tell," Jim replied indulgently. Switching on the ignition, he backed out of the parking space and turned toward the exit of the garage. "They made quite a statement."

"The women? Yeah, I noticed," he replied, surprise still resonant in his voice. "Even Sheila. And Rhonda! My God. What would she have done if she'd've won?"

"Oh, I don't think there was any danger of that," Jim chuckled. "I get the feeling the women have had this planned for some time, and knew exactly what they were doing and what impact they'd have." The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement as he glanced at his partner. "Although, I don't think Cindy Lou expected it to go quite so high. I overheard a comment about credit cards."

"Ah, geez," Sandburg groaned and scrubbed his face with his palms. "I don't want anyone going into debt just to do me a good turn, you know?"

"Well, like the lady said when you protested, it's all for a good cause."

"You heard that?"

"Yep."

Blair was quiet for a long moment, watching the passing street as they headed home, and then he asked, "What else did you hear?"

Knowing what his partner meant, Jim shrugged. "At the beginning, the usual sort of garbage. But, you know, I don't think I'll be hearing quite as much of it in the future. The women of the PD threw down a challenge tonight. They won't put up with the crap that's been dished out any longer."

"Why would they do that, Jim?" Blair asked, turning to gaze at his friend, seemingly honestly mystified.

With a slow smile, he answered, "Didn't you hear them when you protested that they should stop? Quite a few shouted, 'You're worth it.' And they were right. You are."

Blair's gaze dropped and he turned his face away. He blew a ragged breath and sniffed, swiped at his eyes.

Reaching out to grip his shoulder, Jim said gently, "You've made a lot of friends over the years, Chief. The way you've treated people, regardless of their rank or job. A lot of friends, who are really glad you're officially part of the organization."

Nodding, Blair sniffed again. "Yeah, I guess. Cindy Lou said something like that. About being glad I was on the force." He nodded a little to himself. "They're really good people, Jim. They sure blew me away, that's for sure. Never expected anything like that."

"Well, enjoy it, kid," Jim returned sardonically. "Cause tomorrow, you'll pay the price of popularity. Those women are going to dance you into an early grave."

Bubbling with laughter, Blair nodded in helpless agreement. "You got that right." Looking across the cab at his partner, he asked, "You want to come along? Lend a hand?"

"Uh uh, Romeo, no way," Jim chuckled. "Tomorrow night, at least with the ladies, you are on your own."

Blair's smile froze and faded as his gaze narrowed. "At least with the ladies?" he echoed. "What does that mean?"

"Just what you think it means, Einstein," Jim returned with a flashing glance. "You didn't seriously think that you could wander off on your own with Kincaid lurking in the wings?"

Leaning back against his seat, Sandburg sighed. "You know, for a few minutes there, I actually forgot about him." Shaking his head dejectedly, he grimaced. "So, you and Simon?"

"And Joel," Jim added. "We'll be having dinner at a nearby table. And our uniformed watchdogs will be sitting out front and covering the back."

"You don't seriously think Kincaid is going to take over a restaurant, do you?" Blair asked incredulously. "I thought we'd agreed that he probably doesn't have enough storm-troopers left to stage another invasion."

"Big difference between a roadhouse and a stadium, Chief," Jim returned grimly. "Big difference."

"Oh, man," Blair groaned, and pushed his hair behind his ears. "Maybe dinner tomorrow night isn't such a great idea. I don't want to put those women in any danger, you know? Maybe we should just postpone it."

Shrugging, Jim turned into the apartment's parking lot. "Frankly," he said, "with cops clearly guarding the approaches to the restaurant, I don't think he'll risk a public confrontation." Scratching his cheek, he frowned as he looked out at the night, his senses scanning the area. "But whatever he's got planned, it's gotta go down soon." As certain as he could be that there was no threat in the immediate area, he got out of the truck and waited as Blair came around the hood to join him for the short walk into the building.

"What do you think he's waiting for?" Sandburg asked as they walked along the pavement.

"Good question, Chief," Jim rasped in frustration, his gaze searching the night. He turned in a full circle, watching, listening, but all was as quiet as it ever was in the city. He waved at the patrol car that pulled up at the curb, and then followed his partner into the building.

********************

The next morning when they arrived in the bullpen, Blair headed straight to Rhonda's desk and handed her the long stemmed rose he'd picked up on the way to work. Jim trailed in behind him, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth as he made his way to his desk. They'd both brought their vehicles to work, and he'd wondered what the kid was up to when Sandburg had suddenly pulled into a lot next to a florist. Blair had waved at him to wait and had dashed inside, emerging less than five minutes later with the wrapped token. Now, Jim unabashedly listened to the conversation going on across the office.

"For you," Blair said simply as he handed her the deep crimson flower. "With thanks."

A blush of pleasure tinted her cheeks as she accepted the gift. "You didn't have to do this, Blair," she protested, even as she unwrapped the cellophane and deeply inhaled the rich fragrance, and then smiled. "It's lovely."

"What all of you did yesterday it was was incredible, you know?" he told her with naked sincerity. "I was am overwhelmed by the support and the validation. I'll never forget it. Not as long as I live."

Touching his arm lightly, she said, "I wish I could take credit for the idea. But when Cindy Lou and her team suggested it, well, we all thought it was a brilliant way to make the point that that we really are glad you're here." Her gaze dropped as she said hesitantly, "We know it's not been easy for you, or for Jim, either, for that matter. And we don't need to know the details." Glancing at Ellison out of the corner of her eye, she went on, "But we can make some educated guesses." Lifting her eyes again to meet Blair's solemn gaze, she hastened on, "We just figured it was time you guys knew that not everyone who works in this building is a jerk, you know? A lot of us think you more than paid your dues and you're right where you belong."

"Well, I know I'm where I want to be," he said warmly. "Gotta say, you ladies sure know how to make a man feel welcome. Can you, uh, pass the word about how truly grateful I am to all of you."

"Consider it done," she assured him.

He leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before moving toward his own desk. Making eye contact with Jim, he quirked a brow and Jim shrugged. They both knew that lots of their colleagues all over the PD were making 'educated guesses' and that such speculation was unavoidable.

"It's okay," Ellison said softly as Blair approached his desk, to alleviate the worry he saw lurking in his partner's eyes. When Sandburg paused and didn't look too sure about that, he insisted, "I mean it, Chief. I'm okay with them guessing. I'm more than okay with them showing solid support for you."

Blair nodded and shrugged out of his jacket, hanging it on the hook beside Jim's, and then they both got to work, once again focused on trying to get a lead on Kincaid.

********************

Seven and a half hours later, Sandburg hung up after what felt like his thousandth phone call of the day. They'd been backtracking rental and for sale listings from three to four weeks before, trying to find Kincaid's centre of operations. He made a note on a short list of 'possibles' that they'd begin checking out more thoroughly in the morning. Standing, he stretched and winced at the low, creaking pops in his spine, and then picked up the sheet of paper to carry it over to Ellison's desk.

"You got anything?" he asked.

"Maybe three worth looking into," Jim replied. "Better than nothing. Two small warehouses in the industrial district and one down by the waterfront. You?"

"Two. Another old warehouse in the garment district, and what sounds like a rundown ramshackle place on the edge of town. None of the names tally with known or suspected associates, though. One, the warehouse, was rented by a Randall Wilson, and the house by Warren Finkleman."

"Given Kincaid's ideology, Wilson sounds more likely," Jim reflected, and then glanced at his own list. "I've got G. Baker on the waterfront, a Winston Mgabo, and a Tyrell Lafitte in the industrial park. Baker and maybe Lafitte might fit the profile."

"You think it's worth trying to get at least those three staked out tonight, just to see if they spot anyone suspicious?"

Jim considered it and nodded. Gathering up the two pages, he rose to take them to Simon. But Blair looked up at the clock and said, "It's getting late. I'm going to go change in the men's room and head downstairs to pick up my date."

Quirking an amused brow, Jim looked at him askance. "How're you going to fit nearly twenty women into that old jalopy of yours?"

Laughing as he bent to pick up his backpack, which contained a clean shirt and his shaving gear, he explained, "Obviously, oh great detective, I'm not. Most of the women are going to meet us at the roadhouse, but I'm at least going to offer Cindy Lou a ride over. Seems only right, ya know?"

"Okay, Chief," Jim nodded. "But don't leave the garage until Simon, Joel and I are down there to follow you, understand? It will only take a few minutes to organize these stakeouts."

"You got it, man," Blair agreed readily. "See ya in a few," he called over his shoulder as he loped across the office and out into the hallway.

********************

Fifteen minutes later, Jim and Simon were just finishing the stakeout arrangements when Ellison jerked his head up and around at the sound of an unexpected voice in the bullpen. Lifting a hand to Banks to signal a need to investigate, he left the office and found Cindy Lou chatting with Rhonda and handing over a stack of files.

"Cindy Lou," he called in surprise. "I thought Blair was taking you to the restaurant?"

Looking up with a grin, she struck a pose and drawled, "Oh, ah've got dibs on the ride home, Detective. But ah thought it was only fair to let the li'l lady who came up with the idea of winning Blair have the pleasure of riding over with him."

"Oh? I thought it was your idea," he replied, curious.

"Ah wish ah could say it was," she returned. "But it was one of my new girls. She's only been with us for 'bout a month, an' two weeks ago, she came in one mornin' all starry-eyed. Said she'd seen an angel on the elevator, all big blue eyes 'n long gorgeous hair; said a long, tall, drink o' water had called him, Blair, an' we all cheered to know sweetie pie was back. Anyway, she reflected as how she'd sure enough love to win him in the auction, an' Margie said, 'Wouldn't we all.' An', right then, we started in talkin' 'bout why not? Why, when Blair agreed, she was so excited, she got right on the phone 'n called someone to pass along the good news! An' then, when the bidding went a mite higher than we'd imagined it might," she went on, with a mock glare at Rhonda, "the li'l gal offered up her credit card, to cover what all would be needed."

Jim nodded, remembering how he'd seen and overheard that conversation during the auction. A small, athletic looking, young blond that he'd never seen before but had thought sounded familiar and then, something else itched in the back of his brain and he frowned, trying to capture the errant thought. But Cindy Lou was rambling on. "So when Blair turned up a li'l while ago, offerin' a ride, and Gail just looked so wistful an' all, why I said she should go on along with him. Why, she lit up like a kid at Christmas." Chuckling, she winked as she added, "That boy better watch himself. I think she's got her eye on him."

"Gail, huh," Jim grunted, about to turn to his desk and retrieve his jacket. "Gail who?"

"Gail Baker."

He froze and then whipped around. "Gail Baker?" he repeated blankly, and a dim memory of a distant conversation overheard in the corridor outside the Records Unit two weeks before, a woman saying with a coldly triumphant tone, 'It's all set,' and a male voice drawling in response, 'You're a good girl, Gail. I'm real proud of you, darlin'. Real proud.'

Sonofafuckingbitch!

"Just hold on a minute," he ordered Cindy Lou preemptively, his voice harsh and tight, and then he spun to hurry back into Banks' office. "Simon," he grated hoarsely, "the woman who proposed getting Sandburg into the auction is Gail Baker."

Banks frowned and then looked down at the sheet, at the 'G. Baker' beside the rental of a warehouse on the docks. "My God," he rumbled, "you don't think ."

"He's with her now, down in the parking garage," Jim ground out, then turned on his heel to dash across the bullpen and into the stairwell. Banks surged up to follow him, pausing only long enough to say to Cindy Lou, "You might want to reschedule that dinner."

********************

Amused and not a little chuffed at how delightfully thrilled the attractive young blond was to be personally escorted to their group dinner, Blair held the elevator door open for her on the basement level. Given the signals upstairs in the Records Unit, he thought she might have brushed against him on her way past, but she stayed well over on the far side of the opening as she exited. Her smile was still in place, but it looked a little strained, and the girlish eagerness had evaporated entirely. Mildly disconcerted by the mixed messages, he decided she must be shy, and moved slightly ahead to hold the heavy door into the parking lot open and again she was careful to make no contact as she went through the portal. Didn't thank him, either, he noticed, nor did she respond to his light banter about the evening ahead and how much he was looking forward to the fun they'd all have. Shy was one thing but he seriously doubted that he was so intimidating that he'd rendered her completely mute. Once in the garage, he placed a light hand on her back, to steer her toward his Volvo, and couldn't help but notice how she stiffened at his touch and moved briskly away. Sighing silently, he told himself he never had understood women anyway, so it seemed she was going to be no exception to the rule. "It's just over here," he said warmly, gesturing across the crowded lot. She gave one short tight nod and moved in the indicated direction. Walking a half step behind, he decided that maybe she was an ice queen. Nevertheless, he continued to play the gentleman, unlocking the passenger-side door and holding it open until she was securely inside.

He loped around the trunk and slid into his seat. "I'm sorry, Gail," he explained once he was settled, "but we'll be held up here for a few minutes. Jim and Simon will be following us over, and they want to go in a little convoy." He chuckled at how silly he knew that sounded as he put his key in the ignition switch, conscious that she was settling her good-sized handbag on her knees. "They're right behind me, though, so we'll be on our way soon." He looked back over his left shoulder toward the doorway, wishing they'd arrive, as he was finding the one-sided conversation tough sledding. "I hear there's a good band playing," he began as he turned to face her and froze at the sight of the revolver leveled at him. "Whoa," he exclaimed, his eyes widening as his gaze lifted to search her face.

"If you think I'd ever dance with a kike, you're delusional," she said coldly. "And we're not waiting for anyone. Let's go."

Stalling for time, he lifted his hands away from the steering wheel. "Uh, what's going on, Gail? Go where?" But the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach told him that wherever they were headed, he could pretty much expect to see Kincaid there.

"Drive out of here now or I'll shoot you and be done with it," she ordered, and the steely look of virulent hatred in her eyes convinced him that she meant it.

"Okay, okay," he muttered, lowering his hands. With his right, he switched on the ignition. With his left, he quickly reached into his jacket pocket and hit the speed dial for Jim's cell phone, before clamping his fist around the steering wheel. He backed out and headed toward the exit. "Do I turn right or left?" he asked as they neared the top of the ramp.

"Right, toward the docks," she told him.

And that's when it clicked. He hadn't been told her last name when they'd been hastily introduced by Cindy Lou, but he'd bet his next year's salary that it was Baker.

********************

Rhonda and Cindy Lou gaped after the two men, stunned by their sudden sense of almost panicked urgency.

"What'd he mean, postpone dinner?" Cindy Lou asked, confused and completely mystified.

"I don't know," she replied, "but it looks like there's trouble. Who's this Gail Baker? What do you know about her?"

"Well, not much. She's a quiet li'l thing," Cindy Lou began but before she could say more, Rhonda heard the cell phone ringing on Jim's desk, and she leapt up to rush across the room to answer it.

"Hello?"

When there was no response, she frowned, but then heard Blair's voice ask, "Do I turn right or left?" and a strange woman's voice answer, "Right, toward the docks."

Her throat and mouth went dry when she realized something potentially very serious was going down and she sank onto the chair behind Jim's desk, her free hand already scrambling for a pen and paper. Knowing that everyone in Major Crimes had been trying for a week to get a lead on Kincaid, she was very afraid for Blair and felt the breath catch in her chest. Her grip tightened on the phone as she pressed it tightly to her ear, straining to listen to be sure she didn't miss anything. Cindy Lou had followed her and was saying something but Rhonda waved at her urgently to be quiet. Looking up at the other woman, she whispered, "Get me everything you've got on Gail Baker as fast as you can!" When Cindy Lou stared at her, not understanding, she hissed, "Hurry, dammit! Just get it!"

********************

Jim, Simon on his heels, charged into the underground lot, and stopped short when he saw the empty space where the Volvo should have been. "Damn it," he snarled in frustration. "She's got him." Fishing in his pants' pocket for his keys, he started toward the truck, but Simon grabbed his arm, abruptly pulling him back and off-balance. Furious, he shook off the grip, bellowing, "What are you doing! I have to go after them!"

"Jim! Settle down, dammit!" Banks roared back. "I know you're worried about Sandburg, but would you stop and think!" Pulling his cell phone from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, he lowered his volume but not the cutting intensity of his tone. "We know where they're probably going, and Sandburg's no fool. He knows about the warehouse and that we'll connect the name." Punching in a number, he kept talking fast, so Ellison couldn't interrupt. "We have the element of surprise on our side if, and I mean if, we don't go off half-cocked."

"But..."

"I said settle down," Banks intervened sharply, and tilted his head back toward the doorway and the elevator beyond, even as he began talking rapidly into the phone and walking back into the building. "It's Banks. We've got a situation. Officer kidnapped by, we suspect, one of Garrett Kincaid's people." Glancing back over his shoulder at Jim, who looked like he was ready to explode, Simon glared at him and waved sharply for him to follow. "I have a probable location. Meet me in my office in two minutes to discuss takedown tactics."

Jim glared in his turn at the ramp and the exit onto the street above, and then grudgingly, a hollow sinking feeling in his gut and his chest tight with anxiety, he followed his boss inside.

Terminating the call, Simon snapped the phone closed and jammed it back into his pocket. Punching the button for the elevator, he growled, "He's not an observer, anymore. He's a cop and he knows how to handle himself. Kincaid isn't going to kill him outright. The set-up was too careful, too elaborate he's going to use him to lure us there. If you were using your brain, you'd know that. If we do this right, we'll be all over Kincaid before he has a clue that we're on to him."

Jim fumed in silence a moment more, and then he rasped, "I heard him Kincaid. I heard him on the phone to someone in Records two weeks ago, before we knew he'd escaped."

"What? And you're only telling me this now?" Simon exclaimed, his eyes wide with disbelief.

Taut, furious with himself for not having connected the dots sooner, Jim grated, "I didn't hear him clearly, didn't know he was on the loose. Didn't really even register it consciously. I don't know " He sighed and shook his head as the elevator doors opened and they got on. "I just got angry. Furious that Sandburg had agreed to be in the auction. I guess subconsciously I recognized the danger. I just didn't make the connection until I heard her name and put it together with the rented warehouse and that brought back the memory of his voice on the phone."

Banks rolled his eyes and hit the button for the sixth floor.

"He's gonna hurt him, Simon," he muttered in agitation. "To put pressure on us, to raise the ante. He's gonna hurt him."

Banks nodded grimly. "Blair's tough," he replied matter-of-factly. "He'll survive." Relenting, he squeezed Jim's shoulder reassuringly. "We'll be in position in less than an hour. We'll get him back, Jim. He'll be okay."

********************

Ran Jorgenson, the tall, blond Captain of the SWAT Unit arrived on the sixth floor, via the stairwell, just as they exited the elevator. Banks was already briefing him as they marched briskly through the bullpen. Rhonda jumped to her feet and hastened to intercept them. Cupping her hand over the cell phone's mouthpiece, she called, "Captain Banks!"

"Not now, Rhonda," he cut her off, as he pushed past.

"Sir, wait! It's Blair!"

The three men froze at her words. "What?" Simon demanded. "On the phone?"

"Not talking, but he must have made the connection without Gail knowing they're headed toward the docks," she told them rapidly, handing over the phone to Jim when he abruptly held out his hand. "I've sent Cindy Lou to get all the information we have on Gail Baker. She should be back any minute."

"Good work, Rhonda," Simon acknowledged. "Bring in the file as soon as you have it."

"Yes, sir."

As they continued into Simon's office, she returned to her desk. Brown and Rafe immediately rose to loom over her, demanding to know what was going on.

"I don't know for sure," she replied anxiously. "But I think Blair is being taken to Kincaid."

"Ah, shit," Brown cursed as he picked up her phone and punched in Joel's number.

********************

"Gail, what's going on here?" Blair asked calmly, or at least he hoped he sounded calm. Though he was fairly certain of their destination, he wanted to keep her talking, if only to relax her a little. He didn't like the way her gun-hand was shaking. If they hit a pothole, he could wind up being shot.

"You'll find out soon enough," she replied tautly, staring at him relentlessly, except for brief glances at the street to see where they were in order to give him directions when they needed to turn. He found it nerve-wracking to not anticipate her orders because she tended not to give him adequate time to brake slowly and her hand was still shaking.

"Hey, c'mon," he cajoled, playing dumb. "What's the big secret, huh? I don't understand. If this is some kind of joke you ladies are playing on me, it's not funny, you know?"

"No joke, Mr. Natural," she sneered.

He flicked a look at her and swallowed hard, pretending to be startled. "Wha I only Garrett Kincaid calls me that," he stammered.

She laughed, low and mocking.

"How do you know Kincaid," he asked tensely, not having to fake it.

She didn't respond for so long that he began to think he wouldn't get an answer but, finally, she said, "He's my uncle."

"Oh, shit," he muttered, and shook his head. "Look," he began the obligatory spiel, though he was pretty sure she wouldn't buy it, "you don't have to do this. We can stop now before you get in any deeper. You won't get away with this, you know? We've taken Kincaid down twice we'll do it again."

"Just keep driving," she commanded haughtily. "And, while you're at it, slide out your weapon and hand it to me no tricks!"

Steering with his left hand, his eyes on the traffic, he reached under his jacket to pull his pistol from his shoulder holster and held it muzzle up toward the roof of the car. She yanked it savagely from his hand, and dropped it to the floor between her feet.

"Okay," he said then, pretending to be resigned to the inevitable not that he had a lot of choice short of driving the car into a wall while attempting to wrestle the weapon from her. Not that the idea wasn't tempting, but he figured his odds of succeeding without getting shot weren't good, and he didn't think Kincaid would kill him before the cavalry arrived. "We're almost at the docks. Where do you want me to go?"

"To Hell, ultimately," she said vehemently. "But for now, turn left at the next corner and into the alley on the right."

"Man, what did I ever do to you?" he murmured, shaking his head.

"You helped put the man who is like a daddy to me in jail twice," she growled. "I'm going to enjoy watching him take you apart, piece by piece."

"Great," he sighed as he slowed to make the turn. As if rambling nervously, he went on with the hope that someone preferably Jim was listening in, "Pretty desolate neighbourhood, isn't it? Just one empty, dilapidated warehouse after another. Not even any panhandlers or indigents around you sure it's safe to leave those three vehicles parked around here? Somebody might steal them. Couldn't he find more comfortable accommodation? Or did he need a lot of space recruited a new army in the last couple weeks, maybe? I only see one guy down the alley there, by the side door. Oh, wait, there's another guy up on the roof. Pretty fancy automatic rifles."

"Shut up," she snapped, "and stop the car."

He got out and held his hands high. The guard grabbed his arm and shoved him inside the old warehouse. Inside, Garrett Kincaid was waiting for him.

"Well, if it ain't Mr. Natural," he drawled sardonically, sauntering closer. "Good to see you again, boy. I hear you're a liar and a fraud, and they still gave you a detective's shield. My, my doesn't say much for the quality of law enforcement in this town, now does it?"

"Kincaid," Blair acknowledged cautiously, his hands still held high as he looked around. The place was caked with decades of grime and festooned with cobwebs. There were two floors, the one above open to view through the grilled metal flooring, and the section directly above had fallen away at some earlier time, creating a loft effect. "Can't say it's a pleasure to see you again. But man, I'd have to think prison was more comfortable than this hole." Returning his gaze to the escaped felon, he taunted, "Not much of an army, anymore, huh? You've got what? Ten, twelve guys here?"

"Don't need an army if a little bit of a thing like Gail can take you down," Kincaid observed sarcastically. "Good work, darlin'."

"I made him give me his weapon, Uncle Garrett," she bragged.

"Did you now?" he acknowledged with an approving smile, waving her further away from his captive. But he eyed Sandburg assessingly and reflected, "But if he's learned anything from that partner of his, he might well be carrying a back-up." Flicking a look at one of his henchmen, a young muscle-man with a crew-cut, he ordered, "Mallory, search him."

Blair blinked slowly and took a steadying breath, knowing his ploy with the cell would soon be revealed. Wondering if Kincaid would order him to be summarily executed, he licked his lips and swallowed against the cramp of fear in his belly. He willed himself not to tense up as Mallory approached, and he held Kincaid's gaze coolly; planning to fight if it looked like things were going to go bad in a hurry, he wanted his muscles to stay loose. He couldn't beat the odds, but he'd be damned if he'd just stand still, waiting to be shot.

"So, what's the plan, Kincaid?" he asked as if only mildly curious, as Mallory patted down his back and sides.

"Revenge, boy. Sweet revenge."

Snorting, Sandburg replied, "You know, I always gave you credit for being smarter than that. When you got loose, you should have run in the opposite direction, and kept going. You're never going to get away with this."

"I see you're still a cocky bastard," Kincaid rejoined wryly, with a cold smile. "I always liked that about you."

"Sir!" Mallory called out urgently after he'd investigated the hard object in Blair's jacket pocket and found the phone. He held it out to his boss. "It's connected to someone."

Kincaid's eyes flashed as he grabbed the phone and glanced at the number. His expression hardened and his lip twisted in an ugly grimace of fury, as his gaze lifted to meet Sandburg's. Figuring he might as well live up to his reputation for cockiness though he wasn't at all sure it was warranted as mostly he could only remember feeling terror in this man's presence Blair cocked a brow and smirked. "I guess that kinda screws up your plan, huh?" he goaded, knowing he was playing a dangerous game, not sure whether a furious Kincaid was more of a threat than a cold and calculating Kincaid, but fury usually put a man off-balance.

Wordlessly, Kincaid stepped forward, grabbed the collar of his jacket and jerked him forward to glare furiously at him and then he backhanded Sandburg viciously in one smooth motion, so hard that Blair grunted and staggered a step to the side. Blair rubbed his jaw gingerly as he watched Kincaid cover the mouthpiece and demand of Gail, "How much would they have heard? Could they follow you here?"

Gaping at the phone, she shook her head as she tried to think. "I'm sorry," she stammered. "I didn't know."

"How much do they know?" he demanded again, his tone harsh, impatient.

"I didn't mention any street names," she replied anxiously. "Just a warehouse on the docks."

He nodded crisply and turned his flat, cold eyes back to Blair. Drawing his sidearm, he leveled it at Sandburg as he raised the phone to his ear. "Do I have the pleasure of speaking with Detective Ellison or Captain Banks?" he demanded, his voice brittle with rage.

********************

"Ellison," Jim replied, his tone frigid and his gaze locked with Simon's, as he held up a hand to stop the discussion in the office.

"Your boy here thinks he's pretty smart," Kincaid snapped. "But he's about to learn how stupid it is to play games with me."

"Yeah, well, my partner's smart enough to have gotten you so riled that you're not thinking straight," Jim challenged levelly. "You wanted Sandburg for a reason, right? You must have been planning to issue us an invitation to your party anyway. He just expedited the process."

While Jim kept Kincaid talking, across the room, Simon gave swift direction. "Okay, let's recap. The control point will be here," he said, pointing to the agreed upon location on the map open on the conference table. "Patrol cars are already sealing off the area. Ran, you'll deploy your men, here and here, ready to move in on command. We'll evaluate the situation on the scene and go from there. Everyone clear?" He looked around at the other men in the room Ran, and Joel, Henri and Rafe, who had joined them minutes earlier, and then Jim. When they all nodded, he said, "Let's roll." Brown quickly detoured to grab Ellison's jacket while, the phone still clamped to his ear, Jim followed the others out.

"Well, you're right about that, Detective Ellison," Kincaid replied, his tone more contained, and Jim could hear his breathing level out, indicating that he was calming down. "I want you and the good Captain Banks to come alone, or your little buddy here is going to die a swift if very painful death. Do I need to issue you directions, or can you find your own way?"

"I'm afraid we need the address," Jim responded evenly as he got on the elevator with the others. "We've only been able to figure out a general location from what we overheard."

Barking a laugh, the felon drawled, "Oh, you're smooth, I'll give you that. Now, listen up, Detective. I do mean that I don't want to see any other cops, you understand? You come alone or I promise you, the next time I'll have my people cut your families to ribbons. Are we clear about that?"

"Yeah, we're clear," Jim told him dryly. "You want Captain Banks and I to march in there alone so you can kill the three of us at your leisure. It's an interesting plan, Kincaid. Did you really think we'd go for it?"

"Ah, I see you need an incentive to get here quickly," he replied, and Jim winced, realizing belatedly he'd pushed too hard.

"Kincaid, wait!" he shouted. "You kill him now, and we've no reason to come at all, except to take you and your clowns down." Simon and the others looked at him with sharp alarm.

"Takes time to mount an operation, Detective, I know that," Kincaid drawled, and the evil in his voice made Jim's skin crawl. He strained to hear, frustrated to only be linked by sound and what he heard scared him. Blair's heartbeat suddenly jumped, and he heard his partner say, "You don't want to do this, man," and then the sound of scuffling, a grunt and then a shot reverberated through his skull and he jerked the phone away from his ear in reflex, nearly doubled over by the pain.

Simon grabbed the phone and heard Kincaid say, "You hurry, and your boy might still be breathing by the time you get here. Take time to mount a SWAT operation, and he'll sure 'nuff be long dead before you get into this warehouse." And then the line went dead.

"Jim, what ?"

"He shot him, Simon. The bastard just shot Blair!" Jim grated, through clenched teeth.

Fury flared on Simon's face, followed by icy determination. As the elevator doors opened and they raced along the corridor toward the garage, he called out, "As soon as we're in position, we go in. Ran, your sniper takes the man on the roof, and you and your team go up the back fire escape your men are to take down any target they can get. Brown, Rafe, you have the alley. Once we know you are all in position, Jim, you and I will go in the front, to keep him distracted, while the others come in from the top and side. We'll tell him he's surrounded and order him to lay down his arms and surrender, not that he'll do much more than laugh at us. Joel, you're in the control van call an ambulance to be at the perimeter, to come in as soon as we call the all clear."

They ran for their vehicles and, sirens blaring, roared out of the garage.

********************

Sprawled on the filthy floor, Blair gritted his teeth and curled against the searing burn in his side as he pressed his hand down hard on his jacket, using his clothing to stem the rush of blood from the graze. He wasn't sure if Kincaid had meant to wound him more seriously or not, but decided to pretend he'd been hurt relatively badly. The odds were good that because he'd been wrestling with the nearest goon for his weapon, that he'd thrown Kincaid's aim off.

"Take him up to the next floor," Kincaid ordered. "No need to be gentle."

Sandburg moaned when hands grabbed him roughly under the arms and hauled him up. And then he forced himself to let all his muscles go lax, feigning semi-consciousness as they dragged him across the floor. Feeling weak and nauseated from the shock of the attack, he struggled to concentrate and listened as Kincaid deployed his men around the warehouse, and he ordered Gail into a back corner. If he hadn't been hurting so badly, he might have had to fight a slight smug smile as he realized that Kincaid was so arrogant that he actually appeared to believe Jim and Simon might come alone and even if they didn't, he was utterly confident that they wouldn't have time to arrange much backup if they appeared, as ordered, within fifteen minutes, the time it would take to get there from downtown so he was concentrating most of his force on the front of the building.

While Kincaid was deploying his men, Blair was dragged up metal steps that battered his body, and he didn't fight the urge to grunt and groan in protest, though he kept his eyes closed to keep up the illusion that he was oblivious to everything in the world around him except the pain he was experiencing. When they dumped him on the metal, cross-hatch grating of the second floor, he peered cautiously through his eyelashes, and could see that he was lying near the edge, with a clear view of the double wooden doors on the front of the building. Kincaid waved one of his men over to them, to open them a crack and keep watch on the street outside before turning to lope up the steps.

Knowing his partner and his boss, Blair was absolutely positive that his friends would be bringing a lot of other friends to the party, and that belief gave him hope that he might just survive this little adventure. What with them already having the lead on the warehouse address, he was sure the open phone line during the drive from headquarters to the docks would have given Simon more than enough time to organize an assault on the building. Best of all, now that Kincaid thought he was down for the count, all he had to do was watch for his chance to help when the time came. However, regrettably, he also knew that Jim and Simon no doubt thought he'd been badly hurt, but he had to trust that their discipline would keep them from making any stupid mistakes out of fear for him. So for the next fifteen minutes or so, all he had to do all he could do was play possum and wait.

Wait, and battle the fear that clutched at his chest and curdled in his belly.

Oh, and hope that the 'scratch' on his side hadn't taken out such a big hunk of flesh that he was in danger of passing out from blood loss. Closing his eyes, he focused on his breathing, marshalling his strength and energy for when he needed to act.

********************

Jim's face was a rigid mask of control, and he sat with all the animation of a stone statue, his fists clenched on his knees, as he stared straight out the windshield. As soon as they hit the street, Simon's sedan in the lead, followed by Joel, Henri and Brian in the nondescript van that held a wealth of electronics, and the armoured black SWAT vehicle, he rasped, "What did Kincaid say?"

His lips thinning, Simon's features hardened. When he didn't answer, Jim turned his head with slow deliberation to stare at him. "What did he say?" he repeated, his tone hard, dangerous.

Swallowing, cutting him a fast glance before concentrating again on wheeling around vehicles too slow to get out of his way, Banks ground out, "We can't believe anything he says you know that. For all we know, he shot the gun in the air."

"If you believed that, you wouldn't have told Joel to have an ambulance ready at the scene," Jim grated. Visibly struggling to maintain his hard-won control, he ground out, "I was deafened by the shot. Couldn't hear ." His voice caught and he turned away to again stare out the window. "Is he dead?"

"I don't know," Simon admitted hollowly. "I don't think so."

Closing his eyes, Jim clenched his jaw and his fists tighter to stave off the shakes, and his body fairly vibrated with impotent fear and fury. He drew a ragged breath and opened his eyes to glare at the heavy, rush hour traffic that was slowing them down. "If I'd made the connection sooner "

"Stop it," Banks commanded ruthlessly, his fists clenched on the wheel as he fought for every second of speed he could gain. "This isn't your fault. I need you in control, not mired in guilt or wild with rage. Get it together, now." Glancing again at Jim, his tone softened as he added, "And don't be buying grief. We'll know soon enough how bad it is."

Swallowing hard to dislodge the lump in his throat, Jim nodded bleakly.

As they approached the docks, they all killed their sirens and the SWAT vehicle peeled off, to come around the warehouse from the far side, closer to the fire escape in the far back corner. They passed the patrol cars cordoning off the area and, a block away and out of sight of the warehouse, Simon pulled over and Joel parked behind him. The two big men leapt out of the car and ran back to the van. Brown slid the side door open and held the Kevlar vests until they'd shucked their overcoats. Once they'd donned the vests and pulled their coats back on, he handed them the small earpieces and miniature microphones that would allow them to stay in touch with both the van and the SWAT team.

"The ambulance is on its way," Joel assured them soberly as Brown and Rafe climbed out of the van. With a hasty, solemn exchange of glances with Simon and Jim, they raced away to circle around the block and come into the alley from the back, where they would sneak to the side door while Jim and Simon drew the attention of the remnants of the Sunrise Patriots to the front of the building.

Banks and Ellison returned to the sedan and a long two minutes later, as soon as the others had radioed that they were in position, Simon drove around the corner, to park across the deserted street from the warehouse. Resolutely, they got out of the car and walked to the middle of the road. "Kincaid!" Simon shouted. "Police! This will be your only warning. Come out with your hands up!"

The right hand side of the wooden double doors in front of them creaked open, revealing only a dark interior.

Jim quirked a brow at his boss, who rolled his eyes. "We're going in," he said quietly for the benefit of those listening. "Give us ninety seconds, and then take them down."

And then, counting on Kincaid's need to gloat before he cut them down, weapons in hand but pointed at the ground, they strode across the street. Jim listened intently and then murmured into his own microphone as they neared the building, "One man on the roof, two in the back and four in the front on the second floor. One in or near the alley, six near the front on the first floor and one other near the back corner." Simon glanced at him, surprised at the blatant release of information acquired through his enhanced hearing, but Jim just shrugged tightly. Blair was in there and he didn't care who knew about his senses if it helped get his partner out alive.

On the top of a three-story building a block away, a SWAT sniper brought the gunman on the warehouse roof into his sights. Keeping to the shadows in the noisome alley, Brown and Rafe snaked in a crouched lope to the side door, the sentry there only partly visible behind the door that was half-way open behind him as he tensely watched the street out front. At the back of the warehouse, Captain Ran Jorgenson led his men soundlessly up the fire escape to the second floor. He checked the door stealthily and, finding it locked, laid a small charge to blow it open.

Simon pushed the left side of the double doors open, and he and Jim marched in side by side. Both men blinked to quickly adjust their vision to the gloomy interior. With a rapid scan, they'd placed six visible gunmen and Kincaid before the self-styled colonel called out with rich satisfaction, "Captain Banks and Detective Ellison, as I live and breathe. Welcome, gentlemen, to my humble abode."

They looked up at where he was standing close to the edge of the open second floor loft, his left arm locked around Sandburg's throat while he held a revolver to Blair's temple. Though his posture suggested he could barely stand, Blair met Jim's gaze steadily and, barely moving his lips, he breathed, "I'm okay."

Jim gave a barely perceptible nod.

"What now, Kincaid?" Banks demanded.

"Well, first, I'd appreciate it if you dropped those weapons you're holding," the man drawled with a cold, empty smile. "Immediately, gentlemen," he added, his tone harder as he dug the barrel of his weapon into the skin of Blair's temple. "Or I'll blow your boy's brains out right here, right now."

"And then what?" Simon called back, buying a few more seconds of time. "You shoot all three of us?"

"Not before I have a little fun," Kincaid gloated. "I want some satisfaction for all the trouble you've given me. Now drop those weapons or, I swear, I will "

An explosion from the back of the building drowned out the sniper's shot and the sound of Brown taking down the guard at the side door and, dropping to the floor in the corner, Gail screamed in sudden terror, adding to the confusion. Taking advantage of the split second of surprise, Blair elbowed Kincaid hard while simultaneously snapping his head back to smash into his captor's face, and then he twisted out of Kincaid's loosened grip. Even as rapid shots exploded at the back of the second floor, he grabbed for the gun, and they toppled to the floor, wrestling for dominance, as Simon and Jim dropped and rolled in separate directions, and came up firing. Rafe and Brown charged in from the side, low and fast, picking their targets with deadly aim. Above them, Kincaid squirmed out of Blair's weakened grip, but even as he rolled free and brought his revolver up, Sandburg scrambled for the gun in his ankle holster, leveling it and shouting, "Drop it!" When Kincaid continued to bring his weapon into line, Sandburg fired.

In less than a minute, it was over. The smell of cordite and wisps of gunsmoke filled the air and, for an infinite moment, there was only silence. Jim heard a low moan of pain from above, but all he could see was both Blair and Kincaid sprawled on the metal flooring; and then he was racing up the staircase, lunging forward two steps at a time, not sure what he'd find. But when he reached the top, he gulped a breath of relief. Kincaid was pressing a hand against a wound in his right shoulder, and Blair was braced on his side, half-raised on one elbow, both hands supporting the pistol he held trained on his erstwhile captor. His partner looked up at him and gave him a crooked smile. "Hey, Jim," he rasped, his voice thin with effort, "good to see you, man. You wanna take over here? I'm, uh, I'm kind of tired."

"Sure thing, Chief," he replied tautly, his glance taking in the blood soaking through his partner's jacket and the small crimson pool on the floor nearby. Ruthlessly, he stalked toward Kincaid and roughly flipped the man onto his stomach. Ignoring the cursing protests, he hauled the bastard's wrists together and cuffed him. Simon had just reached the top of the staircase when Jim swiveled to kneel beside Sandburg.

The pistol slipped from Blair's hands, and he barely managed to whisper huskily, "Really, man, I'm okay," before he passed out. Jim reached out quickly to cradle his head before it hit the floor, and he paled with sudden fear. Cocking his head unconsciously, he quickly honed in on Sandburg's heartbeat, and then his tension eased as he looked up at Banks and nodded.

"Joel, all clear," Simon called over his mike, striving to keep his alarm from his voice. Jim didn't seem to be panicking, so he figured Sandburg couldn't be in immediate danger of dying. "Blair's alive but hurt. Send in the ambulance." Looking around, he added dryly, "Actually, you better call for several more and the coroner's wagon." Moving across the floor, he crouched beside Jim, who had swiftly checked Blair's wound before lifting his partner's head and shoulders gently to rest against his chest. "How bad?" Simon asked, his voice unsteady.

"Bullet gouged out a chunk of skin along his ribs, and it looks like he's lost about a pint of blood, but he'll be okay," Jim told him, his voice thick with relief.

Banks gripped his shoulder briefly, and then stood, hastily checking to ensure that no other officers were down or injured. SWAT team members were herding wounded men from the back of the warehouse. Below, Rafe hauled Gail from her dark corner, while Brown and two of Ran's men secured the first floor, kicking away weapons, and cuffing the wounded. Assured that everything was under control, Simon holstered his weapon and then moved to meet Ran, who was coming out of the shadows, his assault weapon slung over his shoulder. Simon shook hands with his colleague and said gratefully, "Good job and thanks."

Ran nodded soberly and looked toward Sandburg. "How's your man?"

"He'll be fine," Banks replied warmly, with the ghost of a smile.

"I saw him take down Kincaid," Ran told him then. "He did good. Real good, especially for a rookie."

"Sandburg's got four years of experience, and he's a damned good cop," Simon rumbled staunchly, glancing toward Blair with an expression of warm approval.

Jorgenson grinned and clapped Banks on the shoulder. On his way to the stairs, he called jokingly over his shoulder, "Well, I'd hope a guy that's worth five thousand dollars would be more than just a pretty face."

Simon chuckled and nodded, and then he moved to the edge of the floor to wave the arriving EMTs up the steps.

********************

"I seriously do not want to be stuck here overnight, man," Blair stated emphatically, giving no quarter to the fact that he was flat on his back on a treatment table in the Emergency Room of Cascade General receiving a blood transfusion, or that he looked like death warmed over and had about as much get up and go as an arthritic squirrel.

Jim scratched his ear as he eyed his partner bemusedly, noting with misgiving the stark pallor and deeply etched lines of pain around his eyes and mouth. "Chief, you were shot less than two hours ago."

"It's a scratch," he retorted with a huff. "Okay, so it was a deep scratch that required fifteen stitches, but it was still a scratch. "As soon as I stop making like some kind of vampire, I'm good to go." When Jim just shrugged, he whined piteously, laying the pathos on thick, "C'mon, Jim. I hurt and I'm tired and I just want to sleep in my own bed. Is that so much to ask? Tell the doc that you were a medic and get him to sign me out in your care. Besides, once the shock and the medication they gave me for pain wears off, I think I may be a basket case, you know? And I'd really like to fall apart in the privacy of my own room, if you don't mind. God, this'll sure teach me to be cocky about being the big winning ticket item in an auction! I mean, I was feeling like pretty hot stuff, you know? And it turns out to all be a scam so Kincaid can kill me oh, and you and Simon, too. Here I thought I was going dancing with nearly twenty really great women and I end up being smacked around, shot at and well, man, the whole evening was a real bust, you know? And like that's just so wrong."

"Okay, okay," Jim acceded, holding up his hands in defeat and grinning despite himself. "Don't pout. I'll go see what I can do about getting you out of here."

"Good," he sighed and closed his eyes, only to open one and order, "So go!"

"I'm going, I'm gone."

"Just make sure you come back," Blair grumbled.

"That whole pathetic spiel was just an excuse to use the word 'bust', wasn't it, Sandburg?" he accused. "Don't think I don't know that."

Blair snickered and waved at him weakly to go. Jim grinned, glad he'd caught the wordplay. Simon had told him earlier that because Jorgenson had seen Blair take Kincaid down, despite being wounded, that he was going to credit Blair for the bust. Banks had also shared Ran's comments on how Blair had handled himself. The Captain of the SWAT team wasn't an easy man to impress, and the fact that his partner had taken a monster like Kincaid down personally would go a long way toward establishing Sandburg's credibility as a cop with those who had a problem with him carrying a badge. When he'd relayed the message to his partner, Blair had looked surprised, and then well-pleased. But his speech slightly slurred by the pain medication he'd just been given before he was stitched up all he'd said was, "I couldn't've done it without a li'l help from my frien's, man. S'good to have such great frien's."

Jim's grin faded as he headed out into the corridor, in search of the physician. The kid looked like hell and probably should be kept in hospital overnight, but he had to admit, if only to himself, that he wanted to take Blair home as much or more as Sandburg wanted to go. Chewing on his lip as he tilted his head to listen for the doctor's voice, he tried not to think about how scared he'd been that Blair might never . His gut twisted suddenly and a hollow ache ballooned in his chest determinedly, he shut down the thought before he could fully contemplate the idea of the loft without Blair ever being there again, because coming so close to losing his partner was just too damned hard to face head on. Sandburg was fine. Exhausted, irritable and whiny, but fine.

Thank God.

********************

Not quite an hour later, his partner's arm around his waist and leaning heavily against him, and his arm around the kid's shoulders, he supported Blair into the loft. Though Jim fully intended to help him directly to his room after he'd slipped off the blood-encrusted jacket, Blair resisted and tugged weakly toward the living room. "Too early to go to bed," he complained, his tone fretful, a clear sign that he should go to bed but would be too stubborn to rest. "And I'm hungry."

"Okay," Jim agreed reluctantly, but unwilling to fight about it. "But first, let's get you cleaned up a bit and into some clothes that aren't saturated with blood."

Wrinkling his nose, Blair looked up at him dolefully. "Guess I stink, huh?"

A fond smile flitted over Jim's lips as he lightly ruffled Blair's hair and said softly, "Yeah, Junior. You stink pretty bad."

"Okay, clean up first and then food," Sandburg agreed, once again leaning on Jim as they slowly made their way across the floor to the bathroom.

Settling Blair on the closed seat of the toilet, Jim helped him ease out of his shirt and T-shirt, and then steadied Sandburg to ease his jeans off his hips. The wincing eyes and muted hiss bore testament to the discomfort he was feeling from the ugly, stitched up wound that stretched for nearly three inches just under his ribs. Though he suspected Kincaid had been trying for a gut shot, Jim's throat went dry when he considered how close the bullet had come to plowing through Blair's heart. Sandburg shivered miserably, bringing his attention back to the matter at hand. He filled the basin with warm, not quite hot, water, and then carefully washed away the blood that had smeared over his friend's side, belly and hip. When he was done, he tossed the wash cloth into the hamper and gently dried Blair's skin, taking care not to pull on the wound. And then he soaked another cloth and tilted Blair's chin up to wash the sweat and grime of the warehouse from his face, and then his hands.

Giving him a soft smile of indulgent understanding, Sandburg murmured, "I could've washed my own face and hands."

"I know," he replied as quietly, his gaze hooded. Finished, he said, "Stay here. I'll get you some sweats." Nodding, Blair leaned his shoulder against the sink for support.

A few minutes later, he helped Blair to the couch and eased him down. "Still hungry?" he asked.

"Yeah," Blair replied. "Something light. Comfort food. Soup, maybe? And tea?"

"You got it, partner."

Blair leaned his head back against the cushion and closed his eyes while Jim busied himself in the kitchen. When the soup was ready, he poured it and the tea into large, ceramic mugs and carried them, along with a mug of soup for himself, into the living room. Setting the tray on the coffee table, he handed Blair his soup, put the tea in easy reach, and then settled in his chair.

"Hmm, this is great," Sandburg sighed contentedly. "Thanks, Jim." After another sip, he reflected pointedly, "You know, I hope that this time the prison system manages to hold onto Kincaid like they're supposed to." He paused again, and then mused, "I was thinking that he's, I don't know, like a rite of passage for me, or something."

Jim frowned at that and looked at him askance.

Wincing as he shifted to sit a bit straighter, Blair continued, "Well, think about it. My first day working with you as an observer, he takes over the PD. Then, well, just before things went south at Rainier, leading me to become a cop, he takes over the stadium. And now, he's my first bust as a detective." Shaking his head, he observed, "Sometimes the universe is very strange and mysterious, you know? I never would have thought a fanatical white supremacist with pronounced terrorist tendencies would ever factor so often or so significantly in my life."

"Guess it comes with the territory when you hang around with a sentinel," Jim muttered with a grimace, thinking about how different, and how much safer, Blair's life would have probably been if they'd never met.

"Don't do that, man," Blair chided gently, easily able to guess the thoughts worrying his friend. "I'm not complaining, well, except for the fact that they keep letting him escape. I just think it's a bit odd, and I don't really believe in coincidences he's like a metaphor or something. The antithesis of what we're about, about who we are and the kind of men we try to be the difference we try to make." Sighing, he rubbed his forehead. "Guess I'm not making much sense. Must be the drugs."

"You shouldn't've had to deal with him, not this time," Jim finally confessed. "I screwed up, Chief."

Sandburg's gaze narrowed and a frown furrowed his brow. "What do you mean? Screwed up how? From my perspective, you and the others rode to my rescue and did a damned fine job of it, I might add."

Sighing, Jim sat forward, the half-drunk mug of soup cradled in both hands between his knees. "I, uh, I heard his voice on the phone that day Cindy Lou asked you to be in the auction," he said slowly, studying the floor intently. Giving his head a little shake, he looked up at Blair. "I just didn't recognize his voice not consciously, anyway. And then it didn't twig for me until I heard Gail's last name and made the link with the warehouse rental. I should have put the pieces together a lot faster than I did."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, remind me to buy you a cape the next time I'm at the mall every super hero should have one," he replied sarcastically. "C'mon, Jim, would you give yourself a break? That was days before we even knew he was on the loose. A distant, probably pretty unclear voice on the other end of the line of a phone that was down the corridor and in a huge room with nearly two dozen people talking on the phone or to one another? You're good; hell, you're great. But it's amazing you heard him at all, and then remembered it when you did. Let it go."

When Jim just shrugged his shoulders, clearly not convinced, Sandburg growled, "I mean it. Let it go or I'll go over there and kick your ass."

The tone and the improbable threat from a man who could barely stand, startled Jim into a snort of laughter. His eyes crinkling with amusement, he drawled, "You really think you're up to that, short stuff?"

"Maybe not tonight," Blair allowed with a grin. "But, hey, tomorrow no question."

"You're right, I think the drugs are messing with your head," Jim retorted sardonically, but he felt relieved of a burden he'd been carrying since late that afternoon. "Finish your soup and your tea, and we'll get you into bed before you flake out on the couch."

"Ah, you're going to tuck me in," he teased, the sparkle in his eyes triumphing over the dull haze of exhaustion.

"Yes, Sandburg, I'll tuck you in," Jim sighed with great forbearance. "C'mon. Drink up."

Having already practically inhaled the soup, Blair obligingly started to lean forward to exchange the empty mug for the full one on the table, but he gasped softly at the sharp pull in his side. Immediately, Jim was up and beside him, taking the mug and then handing him the tea. When Blair took it but focused on taking a couple, slow, deep breaths, Jim hunkered down and gripped his shoulder supportively. "You okay?" he asked anxiously.

Nodding, Blair blinked slowly; his voice was strained as he replied, "Yeah. I just forgot for a minute. Moving's a bit of a challenge tonight."

Jim's jaw tightened against the emotion that clogged his throat. "I was scared, you know?" he rasped. "When I heard that shot."

Looking into his eyes, Blair murmured, "I know. The blast must've nearly blown your eardrum."

Quirking a brow, Jim admitted wryly, "Yeah, it did. We were in the elevator with the SWAT guys, heading to the garage. If any of them had any doubts about my sense of hearing, well, I guess they probably don't anymore. I nearly hit my knees."

"I knew you'd be listening and, well, I heard what Kincaid said. He thought I was hurt worse than I was," Blair told him. "I felt bad that you didn't know I was alright."

"Yeah, well, the important thing is that it wasn't anything that won't heal," Jim replied diffidently as he stood and put the empty soup mugs on the tray. "I'll just clean up the kitchen, and then I'll help you to your room."

His expression warm with affection, Blair watched him pick up the tray and stride to the kitchen. He sipped the tea while Jim washed the few dishes and utensils, and then gratefully accepted his partner's support to his room, where Jim pulled down the sheet and blankets and helped Blair ease into bed. And then, with a tiny smile, he firmly tucked the covers around Blair's shoulders.

"Sleep well, Chief," he murmured and then stood to leave, but paused in the doorway when Blair called softly, "Jim I really am okay. You can relax."

He bowed his head and nodded, buying time to swallow the sudden lump in his throat. When he lifted his head, his gaze roamed the darkened room as he rasped, "A week ago, you asked me if I could name five things that make me happy. But I only gave you four. You want to know what the fifth one is?"

"Yeah, Jim, I'd like to know," he replied softly. "Like I said, we can pay more attention to doing stuff that you enjoy, if we know what those things are."

Jim sniffed and swiped at his nose. "Well, this'll be an easy one, cause it's something that I've already got every day," he said, his gaze still flitting around the room. But then, he took a breath and met Blair's eyes. "The fifth thing is you, Chief. Having you here. Having you as my partner." Shrugging uncomfortably, embarrassed, he turned to leave.

Behind him, his voice husky with emotion, Blair murmured, "I love you, too, man."

He smiled and nodded. "Good night, Chief."

"Good night, Jim. See you in the morning."

He was on his way upstairs when he heard the quiet snicker. "And, uh, Jim? That makes six things."

Grinning, he chuckled and continued up to bed. "And seven, and eight," he counted silently to himself, adding 'safe' and the sound of Blair's laughter. "And a whole lot more, Chief. A whole lot more."

finis

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