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.

Blessed are the Merciful

by Arianna

********************
"Oh, man," Blair groaned in exasperation as he waved at the television screen, "the commercialism crap just gets worse every year. It's like, they miss the whole point of the holiday…"

"I know what you mean, Chief," Ellison sighed, having just watched yet another endless series of commercials hyping all the latest, and expensive, stuff that kids just had to ask Santa for this Christmas. He didn't know how parents even began to afford the annual gluttony of greed. Sure must put a lot of pressure on most families…and be hell on earth for parents who just can't afford to give their kids what they most dream of having, he thought with a frown.

"I may not be a Christian," Blair continued morosely, "but I sure know the difference between barbaric consumerism and the essence of love." Pondering that, he mused a little to himself, "Might be interesting to study how this culture got so caught up in things that most people get sidetracked from the real meaning of Christmas…why giving stuff is so essential to proving love in our society…."

"Might be," Jim repeated with vague agreement, not really listening now that the game was back on. Sandburg was always musing aloud about some anthropologically stimulating question or other, about how societies and cultures worked. It wasn't something that really grabbed Ellison's attention and most of it he didn't quite catch.

Blair flicked him an indulgent look, knowing full well he'd lost his Sentinel's attention, but not minding. How cultures and societies worked, what made the people tick, was his passion, not his friend's driving force in life. Sitting back, idly watching the game, his agile mind ticked over various ideas of how he might explore the question of commercialism and Christmas, wondering, as Jim had just done, what the season held for those without the bank accounts or credit card limits to indulge their superficial and almost manic desire for 'things' to prove affection.

Given the sorry state of his own finances, he found himself sighing with some empathy for those who had to discover other means of celebrating the meaning of Christmas.
********************
Outside, cars swished along busy, slush-covered streets as the sleety mixture of rain and snow drizzled down from the heavy gray clouds above. It was only mid-afternoon, but felt like dusk, what with the cold and the early twilight of late fall. Light from the endless rows of bright store windows splashed onto the wet sidewalks, reflecting back against the slick surfaces with a kaleidoscope effect of fractured patterns and colours. People streamed past, weighted down with heavy coats, hats, boots, gloves and packages gripped in hands or balanced precariously in their arms. Mothers pulled along recalcitrant and tired children, who were irritable with the cold and distracted by the fascinating things in the store windows. Department store Santas, dismal in wet, red wool suits and unconvincing beards, rang bells on the street corners. Men dashed by in their spare moments to pick up that most wanted, and most hard to acquire, toy or electronic game; some successful, some feeling increasingly frustrated as another lead came up dry. Teens dawdled along, raucous in their laughter, sometimes intimidating in their garb of dark leather and multiple piercings.

And the homeless wandered, seemingly aimlessly, or huddled near grates for warmth, always with their hands out, always pleading for spare change, many a little sloppy and morose with drink, others twitching in need of a fix or slightly spaced out from the last one…ignored and despised for the most part by those more fortunate than themselves who flashed by, busy and rushed, intent upon the business of their own lives. Still, they caused a certain discomfort, an embarrassment, in the hearts of many as they passed by…some hesitating to dig into pockets or purses for a few coins, not making eye contact as they hastily dropped their loose change into grimy hands or frayed caps.

"It's disgusting," grunted one of the store owners, a middle-aged, paunchy man named Marco, as he eyed one bum with distinct disfavour. "More of them hanging around here every year, groping at our customers, begging for money. It's bad for business…customers don't have to put up with it if they do their shopping on the internet, or go out to the malls to buy what they want."

"Too right," agreed his cohort, Les, a thin, dyspeptic man in his late thirties, from the store next door. "They should get a job, work like the rest of us…or they should be locked up where they can't bother decent people. Poor slobs would likely be better off dead."

Nodding in agreement, Marco muttered, "It'd be a mercy…"

For a moment, the two men stood silently, lost in their thoughts. They truly despised these indigents, considering them a blight on polite society, worthless…the scum of the earth. 'Mercy' didn't factor much in their thoughts…but the cost to their businesses, and death, certainly did.
********************
"All right, gang, I have a project in mind for any of you interested in getting a little field work experience in your spare time," Blair announced at the end of his class early the following Monday morning.

"What do you have in mind, Mr. Sandburg?" one earnest student asked.

Grinning, Blair replied, "Blair, the name is Blair! How many times do I have to remind you that 'Mr. Sandburg' sounds like some stuffy old guy…which I, like, definitely am NOT!" Several in the class, including the student who had posed the question, snickered. No…with that wild mane of unruly curls, the multi-coloured vest and jeans, and dancing blue eyes, he sure didn't look like any old men that they had ever known.

"Okay," he smiled brightly, raising his hands for order, "the assignment I have in mind is to observe the homeless and the regular people on the streets, to get an idea of how our society relates to poverty, especially now, during the Christmas season when consumerism is at an all time high."

The students exchanged skeptical glances…it sounded cold, wet and dreary…maybe even a little dangerous. Besides, it was a really busy time of the year, what with exams around the corner, the upcoming long Thanksgiving weekend, shopping, parties…well, just really busy. So, much as Blair had suspected, though he tried hard not to be cynical, few raised their hands. Those that did won one of his patented incandescent smiles of approval. "Melissa, J.D., Chuck, Andrea, and Mike. Okay, anyone else? No, well, the rest of you are excused. Read Chapter Ten in preparation for our discussion next week. And, you, my five intrepid adventurers in search of truth and wisdom, come with me to my office and we'll work out how this assignment will play out."

Later, when they split up the assignments, the girls got the 'shopping detail' of observing the shoppers, the store-owners and the general pedestrian traffic on the streets to see how people reacted to the homeless people they encountered. Blair made sure they knew to stay in well-lit areas, and always to work together, never on their own. They went off to work up questions to pose to people they'd stop for brief interviews and to research general material on how informal caste systems work in societal hierarchies. The guys got the more potentially dangerous assignment of linking with the homeless themselves, searching out where and how they lived, getting to know their stories to illuminate them as real people not social caricatures, the 'untouchables' of the modern day world. They would only go out three days or nights a week, and Blair would be working with them directly to make sure no one got into any trouble.

Like that would be possible…right?

They'd meet once a week in Blair's office to compare notes and learnings, to brainstorm and extrapolate theories of behaviour and cultural norms. The final report, to which they would all contribute, would make up twenty-five per cent of their course grade and they'd be exempt from two of the routine course papers.

All in all, the students considered it a pretty good deal. Besides, working with Mr. Sandburg…er…Blair, was fun and they really learned a lot from him.
********************
The next morning as they were each heading out in their respective directions, Blair remembered to mention, "I'll be home late tonight, Jim…don't wait with supper for me, okay?"

"Hot date, Chief?" the police detective teased, waggling his eyebrows and leering a little.

"I wish, man," Blair groaned, then continued with a grin. "Nope, just a class project. It'll take up a little time between now and the end of the term, but I'll work it around your schedule, so when you need me at the station or on a stake-out or something, just let me know."

"Sounds good, Chief, have fun," Jim replied as he closed and locked the door, and then followed his roommate down the stairs.
********************
They started out together the first day, so that Blair could keep an eye on the girls as well as the guys. They chose a two block stretch along Hastings Street, which had a lot of shopping traffic, but which was also on the fringe of the broken down inner city area where the homeless found their refuge. The girls had worked up their questions, and were busy accosting shoppers, to ask how they felt when approached by the homeless, what they thought of the homeless in general, and what they thought the answer to homelessness was. In addition, they had brief questions about family income, approximate family expenditure on Christmas, number of family members and neighbourhood of residence. They also had questions for the shop owners, about how they felt the homeless affected their business, what they did, if anything, to assist the homeless or discourage their presence and how long they'd been doing business in that spot.

It wasn't long before Melissa and Andrea experienced something of what it must feel like to be one of homeless, ignored and swept aside as shoppers hustled past, either completely uninterested or outright irritated to be accosted. Though theirs had sounded like the easier part of the assignment, they began to appreciate that it was going to take its own brand of stamina and thick skin. They found the shop owners a mixed lot. The guy who ran a greasy spoon in the middle of the block saved leftovers for the soup kitchen and was known to give handouts at the back, in the alley, every night at closing. The weird old lady who ran the herb and natural food shop with her free-spirited niece, Misty, worried about the poor creatures, wondering how they got enough to eat or kept warm at night…on cold days, they'd offer hot tea or cocoa to anyone who needed the warmth outside their back door. Jeff, the restaurateur, and Misty, weren't reticent about some of their cold-hearted neighbours, who treated the homeless worse than they'd treat their dogs. That would be Marco and Les, particularly, Melissa and Andrea decided after having gotten an ear-full from those worthy citizens. But, mostly, there were those in-between, who didn't notice, didn't care, thought about the homeless in passing, didn't see them as their problem or were vaguely annoyed or saddened about it all, but had no ideas on how to make anything better.

The guys found the first few days tough going as well. The homeless aren't a particularly trusting lot, being well used to being preyed upon by those who are stronger or more vicious, and who are just as jealous of their privacy, perhaps more so than the average citizen, given privacy was a rare and valued commodity in their lives. Blair took the lead on making the early contacts, his innate charm and innocence of spirit defusing suspicion, his warmth and humour, his candour, gradually winning trust. By the middle of the second week, they had begun to get to know several of the street people.

There was tiny little Annie, a teenage runaway drug addict who supported her habit through prostitution. She was a little wacky, with green spiked hair, a nose ring and Elvira eye makeup, but there was a vulnerability about her and it was pretty clear she didn't have a mean bone in her body.

Then, there was Costa, a big Greek immigrant who'd come to America in search of a dream and found a load of misery instead. His family had been wiped out in a car accident two years before. He'd gotten lost then, mostly in a bottle and was always a little more than half-cut. He was gregarious and loud, always making with the jokes to hide the empty misery in his soul. Essentially good-hearted, he was completely unreliable and unpredictable, sometimes flying into explosive rages, occasionally sinking into a pit of desolation and hopelessness. The storeowners disliked him, particularly, because his size and mood swings intimidated customers.

Old Joe, a weathered, thin, black man, was the philosopher on the street. He'd seen it all, at least twice, and wasn't surprised by much in life anymore. Oddly, he still felt hopeful about humanity, thought there was more good than bad in the world, and that most folks did their best, just trying to get on with their lives. He was destitute because he was elderly, had never made enough to 'put some by' for retirement and certainly didn't have a pension plan. Too old now to work, his family 'gone on ahead' or living on the other side of the country, he got by as best he could. The shelter workers were 'good people' he said, and the soup kitchen a lifesaver.

Tim was the surprise the students hadn't expected. Somehow, no one thinks of children being homeless in our modern world, always assuming they were relics of Dickens' Victorian England or the Great Depression. But, sadly, they learned that kids could be homeless, too. Tim was about ten, though he'd never admit to any specific age…they wondered if he even knew how old he was. Tough, smart-mouthed, brittle around the edges, he didn't know who his father was and his mother had abandoned him a year before… but, Old Joe suspected that maybe she was dead. Like Annie, she'd led a perilous life, one that didn't often lend itself to dying of old age. Tim had been in juvie and in at least two foster homes, but he'd run away from all of them. A regular little tough guy, he told the students belligerently that he didn't need anybody, and it was only too clear that he didn't welcome sympathy of any kind.

They learned the homeless lived in abandoned, cold and draughty buildings, in cheap flophouses, in cardboard boxes over grates in alleyways. The odd night in a shelter, especially when it got really cold, and regular meals from the soup kitchen, kept them going. Most were chronically ill, with bronchitis, abrasions that never quite healed, addictions of one kind or another, malnutrition and exposure. But, as time went on, the students found that they formed their own little society. They knew one another, and like everyone else, some were friends and some weren't. They often shared what little they had, and would sit around of a night, telling stories, sharing crazy hopes, parceling out warnings or tips about who to avoid or where to go for handouts. Not having much didn't really bother them…they were used to it, and 'things' didn't matter much to them anyway. Oh, it would be good to have a safe place to crash, and know where good, regular food could be had in abundance, but they didn't miss having a car, or television…could care less, most of them, about ever surfing the net. Nope, they just wanted to get by…and they all wished they weren't so despised for their very existence. They weren't animals, but thinking, breathing, feeling human beings, who appreciated respect and kindness as much as did anyone. Not that they experienced much of either…so when they did, it was memorable.

There were others that the students encountered, or whose stories they heard as the days and evenings passed by. Heart-wrenching stories of kids who'd been beaten and abandoned, growing up angry and defensive, not feeling as if they belonged anywhere, with no sense of self-worth or esteem. Whole families that ended up homeless when the provider of the family, either father or mother, lost their job, were unable to pay the rent and found themselves locked out of their apartments. People who drifted on the edges, suffering from mental or physical illnesses and disabilities, or who had just gotten out of prison and couldn't get anyone to hire them for the life of them. Then there were those who preyed upon the homeless …the pushers, the bullies in the gangs, the pimps. It was a hazardous, precarious life…and many didn't survive, freezing in the night, OD'ing, beaten to death…whatever. They disappeared, but they weren't forgotten, not by those who had known them, anyway.

If this particular time of year was harder on them than other times, most tried to hide it, shrugging it away. Cold nights and empty stomachs felt much the same, regardless of the season. But, the students saw the haunted eyes, the lingering gazes into store windows, or more often at families hurrying by, and felt saddened by the pain and sense of loss and loneliness aching in many hearts, however well the sufferers tried to hide their despair.

The students also got to know some of the 'good people' Old Joe had mentioned, the shelter workers. Sean and Josie particularly stood out. In their late twenties, they were dedicated to keeping their shelter by night and food kitchen by day a going operation. It took a lot of donations, and hard-to-get government grants, but somehow they always made tight ends meet. When asked why they cared so much, why they chose to live on the edge of poverty themselves in order to help the homeless, they just shrugged. Someone had to care, didn't they? What kind of world would it be, if no one cared?

What kind of world, indeed.

Once or twice, Blair thought he spotted a familiar, gangly homeless guy, with a halo of red hair, farther along the block or peeking around a corner of an alley, but whenever he looked closer or jogged to catch the fellow, he just seemed to vanish into the crowd. Blair would shake his head and shrug, tell himself he was just imagining things, and turn back to whatever conversation he'd been having at the time.

Still, he couldn't help wonder about the mysterious Gabe, self-professed archangel and miracle worker, who he'd met during the strike a couple of weeks back. Gabe had sacrificed himself to save a young teen threatened by a murderer…and had then disappeared. The really weird thing, was that the man he was supposed to be had actually died the winter before.

Blair found himself thinking a lot about Gabe…found himself wishing he could have gotten to know the guy a lot better. How often, after all, did anyone get the chance to get to know an archangel?

In general, based on the first two weekly meetings, Blair was pleased with how the project was working, what the students were learning…the questions they asked, the observations they made. He'd had to caution them, a little, about objectivity. It was hard to be a professional observer, hard not to get caught up in the pathos of the lives of the people around you…hard not to become a participant in their lives, but only someone who looked in from time to time. Ruefully, Blair candidly acknowledged that it was a lesson he hadn't quite perfected himself yet.

The second week was harder than the first, in that it brought home the cold reality of the kind of life their subjects led. Three homeless people died that week, none that they knew, but it still shook the kids up. One was a girl Annie had known, and had liked, so she was pretty upset, and that made it seem more personal to all of them. From the little that was known about her death, it looked as though the girl had been beaten to death by a john. Another was a drug user who'd OD'ed and the last was someone who had frozen to death. The mood on the street was grim…except amongst a couple of the shop owners who had been disgustingly cheerful, according to Andrea and Melissa, upon hearing the news.

Blair didn't tell them that he had more personal knowledge of the deaths, having been called out with his partner to the scene of two of them…Annie's friend and the young guy who'd frozen to death. It had been grim…very grim. But, there hadn't been anything to suggest they were anything but unrelated incidents… except for the waft of after-shave cologne Jim had scented in the air. But, it was a cheap, very common, commercially available brand, so no one had thought much of it. Jim might not even have noticed it, if it hadn't made him sneeze.
********************
It was late Saturday night when they were called out to another crime scene. The night was cold, with a bitter wind off the sea that seemed to whistle down the dark, narrow alleyway in the rundown inner city block that bordered along Hastings. Blair pulled up his collar, and huddled into his coat, a woolen cap tugged down over his long hair to both keep him warm and to keep his locks from flying every which way in the wind. Dejectedly, he trudged after Jim. He hated this part of the job…the sudden, violent end of any life haunted him, though he tried to keep his own feelings of grief and horror locked down. Jim needed him so he had to be there. And that was that.

Their victim was shoved up against the filthy brick wall, half covered by a large, crushed, cardboard box that had evidently been the deceased's shelter. His pitiful, paltry belongings, a threadbare sweater, an odd glove, some newspapers, a pair of mismatched socks and one spare set of gray tinged boxers were scattered like leaves amongst the detritus of the alley. The crime scene guys had set up their lights for pictures, and they were still waiting for the ME to come and pronounce the guy dead. But, the bloody chest wound and the lack of any respiration or pulse gave them a pretty good idea of what the verdict would be. The whole area was redolent of stale urine, cheap red wine and whiskey, the rotten scent of garbage…and death.

Sniffing from the cold, brushing his gloved hand under his nose, Sandburg's brow was furrowed, his nose wrinkled and his lip curled in anticipation of seeing something disgusting and horribly pitiful as he eased up behind Jim, who was kneeling by the body.

"Oh, geez, it's Costa!" Blair moaned, sick, as he wheeled away, one hand going up to cover his mouth as he blinked back tears of shock and sorrow.

Jim's head snapped around toward him, and then the detective stood to move to his side, to put a supportive hand upon his shoulder. "What did you say, Chief?"

"I know the guy, Jim…well, sort of. His name is Costa, and he's been on the streets a couple of years. A Greek immigrant. All his family got killed in a car crash and he's been drinking pretty heavily ever since," Blair blurted out, in-between panting to settle the nausea in his gut.

Frowning, Jim looked back at the body and then returned his gaze to his partner. "How do you know this guy, Sandburg?" he asked.

"He's one of the people we've been studying in our class project," Blair replied, wincing as he sneaked a quick look at the body and then again turned his head away. "Oh, man, he wasn't a bad guy, you know?"

"What project, Chief?" Ellison demanded, frowning in confusion, wondering why he hadn't heard about this before now.

"You know the one, Jim…I told you about it a couple of weeks ago…that I'd be working on it three days or nights a week until the end of term," Blair replied, a trifle impatient.

Shaking his head, Jim continued to probe, "I must have missed the details, Junior. You want to fill me in?"

Rolling his eyes, his hands shoved into his pockets for warmth, Blair wondered why, exactly, they had to talk about it out here, where it was cold, and where Costa's dead body was lying less than six feet away. However, to humour his not very patient partner, he replied, "You remember I was thinking a couple of weeks ago about studying the impact of commercialism and consumerism on the spiritual aspects of Christmas?" He waited, but when Ellison just shook his head, Sandburg made a face that as much as said, 'it figures', but carried on. "Anyway, some of my students and I have been studying the homeless and the impact they have on the shoppers and storekeepers along Hastings, especially at this time of year, you know, when it's supposed to be 'peace on earth and goodwill towards all men'."

Scowling, his lips thinned in weary irritation, his jaw just a tad too tight, Ellison looked away as he shook his head. "Don't you think that's a little dangerous, Chief?"

"We're following the right protocols and taking the necessary safety and security precautions. It's fieldwork…fieldwork sometimes has a few hazards…it's part of the job," Blair waved away the concern.

Looking back down at his partner, Ellison continued, "I'd feel better if you'd tell me these things, Sandburg …so that I don't have to find out in some back alley, beside a corpse."

"I did tell you, Jim…you just weren't listening, man," Blair protested, a little plaintively.

Waving that off with a mumbled, "Right, we'll discuss that later," Ellison continued, returning to the case at hand. "So…any idea who would want to murder your friend, Costa?"

"Uh, uh, no clue, man," Blair sniffed again. "He sure didn't have anything worth stealing, no beneficiaries and nothing to leave them anyway." Biting his lip, Sandburg looked up at Ellison as he reported the little he did know. "He was known to have quite a temper, sometimes, when he'd been drinking."

Jim looked away, nodding, wishing the information wasn't essentially useless. Blair shivered as he looked down at Costa's lifeless body and murmured, "But this makes four in a week, doesn't it? Isn't that a little steep even for this strata of society?"

His brow furrowed, Ellison thought about that. It was a little unusual. But, Blair was right…the life of the homeless was full of risks. He shrugged, looked around, sniffed against the nasal drip occasioned by the bitter cold…and sneezed.

"Hope you're not coming down with a cold, man," Blair mumbled. "A grouchy, bear-like, sick Sentinel, I do not need right now."

"You're all heart, kid, you know that?" Jim replied sarcastically, then sneezed again. Sniffing, his head cocked a little to one side in concentration, he frowned.

"What is it, Jim? You got something?" Blair asked, instantly on the alert.

Shaking his head slowly, Ellison replied vaguely, "I don't know, Chief…maybe. It's that same cheap cologne…once, could be anything, twice, a coincidence…three times…three times is stretching it." Turning to look down at Costa, he murmured, "Maybe these deaths aren't so random, after all."
********************
By the middle of the next week, it was pretty clear that the stats on homeless deaths would be going through the roof that winter…and they looked less and less random all the time. There'd been three more, a wino, another drug user and another prostitute. Unfortunately, the scent of the cheap cologne was the only connection between them so far…that and the fact that all of the victims had been discovered in the general vicinity of Hastings Street.

"Listen up, people," Simon called over the murmuring as they settled into their places around the conference table. Slapping seven case files on the table, Simon stood with his hands on his hips as he scowled down at them. "It's looking like we might have a serial killer on our hands…the location, the target population, and the sharp increase in deaths in little more than a week make it all very suspicious. I want to know what's going on over on Hastings Street. Am I clear?"

They all bobbed their heads and mumbled, "Very clear, Captain," with just right the tone of deferential concurrence. It didn't matter to any of them that the victims had been indigents. The fact was, it looked like somebody was murdering innocent people…and their job was to find out who the killer was before there were more victims.

"Alright, anybody got any ideas?" Simon asked, crossing his arms. "Is this one we need to go undercover on?"

Blair cleared his throat and leaned forward. "Yes, Sandburg…you were about to say something?" Banks encouraged.

"Uh, yeah," Blair replied. "Some students and I have been conducting a project down there for a couple of weeks now…getting to know some of the homeless people, the shelter workers and the shopkeepers. To try to understand the dynamics of consumerism as it relates to the spiritual roots of Christmas…"

"Yes, yes, Jim mentioned something about a class project," Simon cut in, not needing the anthropological details. "Get on with it."

"Right," Blair blew out a breath. "Well, so far, nobody has a clue what's going on, but they're all getting really scared. There's nothing much to tie the victims together except that they were homeless and worked that area of the city…you know, panhandling. Anyway, while they knew of one another, most of them, none were particularly close friends…didn't work the street together or anything, didn't use the same pimps or pushers." Sandburg paused, then added softly, "But people down there are, like, really, scared, man. Word's out on the street that someone is taking them down."

Simon grunted at that. "I don't blame them for being scared, but it's a little early for panic. These might all still just be grim coincidences."

"Maybe," Blair shrugged, unconvinced, as he sat back in his chair.

Sighing, Simon chewed on his lip, waiting to see if anyone had anything else to add. It seemed they didn't. "Okay, maybe we need to put someone on the street, to live with these people…to get a clearer handle on what's going on."

H. piped up, "Hairboy's already in position, Captain…do we really need to put anyone else in?"

Jim leaned forward at that. "Now, wait a minute. Sandburg is conducting a structured class project, not an undercover assignment or stakeout," he clarified, wanting to keep it that way.

"Well, yeah, that's true, man…but, I could easily spend more time down there. Classes are over for the exams. And, well, they already trust me, Jim…maybe…" Blair offered tentatively.

"No," Ellison snapped. "You are not a cop. No."

Simon shook his head, not much liking where he was inclined to go on this. "Hold on, Jim. H. and Sandburg may have a point. It takes time to work someone into these closed societies…"

"You're absolutely right about that, Simon," Blair interjected, impressed with the Captain's appreciation and term usage.

"Uh huh," Banks grunted, cutting the anthropologist a sharp look to indicate that interruptions weren't appreciated, as he continued, "And, as I was saying, it might make sense to have Sandburg spend more time down there."

Jim shook his head. "I don't like it…seven people are already dead."

"There will be more if we don't stop whoever is doing this," Blair pointed out, softly.

"It's NOT your job, Chief…" Ellison argued.

"Maybe not," Sandburg replied, "but some of them are getting to be my friends. Look, how dangerous could it be? I walk around, do a little panhandling, keep my eyes and ears open…I'll have back up, right?" He looked hopefully up at Simon and then back at Jim, knowing he'd have the best 'back up' in the world.

"Yes, but the nature of these assignments is that they are unpredictable," Simon replied, rubbing his chin. He didn't like the idea of using a civilian observer. If anything went wrong, there would be hell to pay, and no mistake about that. But, Blair was on site already…and Simon had come to trust the kid's instincts and off the wall analysis of the facts at hand. His judgment was still a little rocky, never having been trained to assess risks of the nature they faced, but he wasn't foolhardy. "Okay," he allowed finally, "we'll give it a try. Jim…you'll be the back up."

Ellison rolled his eyes. As if THAT had ever been in question. Sighing, knowing the kid wouldn't likely be wearing a wire until they had something more tangible to focus on, his senses would be the only things keeping Sandburg safe. Damn it, he really didn't like the way this was going.

As they left Simon's office, Ellison looked down at his partner, quite evidently very unhappy.

"It'll be all right, Jim, I'll be careful," Sandburg reassured him.

"Right…" Jim replied, looking away. "You'd better pull your students off the street, Chief."

"Already decided, big guy," Blair nodded in agreement. "I'm going to break it to them at this afternoon's team meeting."
********************
"Ah, Blair," Mike protested. "We've been getting some really good stuff, man."

The others nodded, not liking the idea of the assignment being prematurely terminated.

Lifting his hands to calm them, Blair nodded, "I know, I know. But you're right. You do have some very good information…enough, I think, to draw some at least preliminary conclusions. Besides, it's exam time, and you need to study…and we were going to wrap it up in another week or so anyway, when the terms ends. Bottom line, folks, with seven people dead out there, it's just too dangerous for you to carry on the field work."

Reluctantly, they nodded their heads. "Alright, then," Blair continued, "Who wants to go first with their key observations and extrapolations from the past week's work?"

They all took their turns, and some interesting trends were being found in terms of the correlation between where certain shoppers lived and their level of tolerance or concern for the homeless. The better the neighbourhood, the lower the tolerance and concern…but the higher the guilt, and the rationalizations. There were some excellent case studies of the lives of specific homeless people, to illustrate that they came from every strata of society in terms of birth, and that there were multiple variables that impacted upon them having ended up on the streets.

"Good work, very good work," Blair commended them as he began to wrap up the meeting.

"There's just one other thing that seemed a bit…odd," Melissa murmured, casting a quick look at Andrea, who nodded, encouraging her to go on.

"What's that, Mel?" Blair asked, his attention immediately focused back on whatever she had to say. It was one of the things they liked best about him…he really listened.

"Well, it's those two shopkeepers, Marco and Les…the two who haven't got a whole heart between them," Mel went on, frowning a little, not sure this was worth sharing, but it had felt odd. "Anyway, we overheard them last night…I don't think they realized we were listening. One said something about all the poor homeless people who were dying like flies…but he didn't seem the least bit unhappy about it. The other one replied, sagely, like he was pretending to be very wise, 'Well, it's a mercy, isn't it…poor useless souls.' And, then, Marco laughed, really nasty, as he slapped the other one on the back, 'Well, Les,' he said, 'Like they say… 'blessed are the merciful'. Les froze up a little, and then he laughed, too. It was really creepy, you know?"

Blair had sat back during her recitation, his expression thoughtful, and there was something like pain in his eyes. "Yeah," he murmured quietly, "I know." Swallowing, he shook his head, "I'll never understand how anyone can find the death of another living being something to laugh at…"

They were all quiet then for a long moment. But, remembering himself, Blair looked up, smiled softly at Melissa and Andrea, then at all of them, as he said, "You did good, taking on this project. It wasn't easy, and you got exposed to some very painful stuff. But…you really care, really took it seriously and I'm proud of you. I'm looking forward to reading your final report. Now, go on…it's late. Get out of here."

But, after the students had left, Blair sat back in his chair, pondering what Mel had told him…wondering if it meant anything more insidious and horrible than simply two complacent and indifferent men having a macabre chuckle over the fates of those less fortunate than themselves.

He checked his own project file, noted the details of the two shopkeepers, and then packed up to head home. It was time to change, meet Jim, and hit the streets.
********************
Blair didn't say anything to Jim about the odd remarks of the shopkeepers. It was hearsay at this point, and too tenuous to draw any kind of conclusions. As they drove across town, Jim was going through his litany of warnings, "Stay in well lit areas, don't go dashing down any dark alleys unless you KNOW I am right behind you…better still, don't take off on your own at all, but wait for my back up and make a point of staying behind me. Don't push back if anyone pushes you, just take note of who they are. Don't tell anyone you're working with the police…"

"Yeah, and keep my coat buttoned up and my scarf tied around my throat and don't lose my mitts," Blair chimed in, grinning a little as he gazed out of the window at the streets passing by. "I'll be careful, Mommy," he added, "Don't worry…I'm a big boy now."

"This isn't funny, Sandburg," Jim retorted, repressingly. "Nor is it a game."

Sighing, Blair turned to face his friend, his face devoid now of any humour, as he replied quietly, "I know that, Jim. I really am a big boy now…I saw the bodies, remember?"

Swallowing, Jim looked away, and then nodded. "Yeah, I remember. Sorry, Chief…I'm just not very happy about this."

"I know," Blair consoled. "I promise…I will be careful."

"I trust you, Chief," Jim replied. And he did.

He just didn't trust the rest of the world much. But what really aggravated his incipient ulcer was that Sandburg seemed to trust the rest of the world a whole lot too much.
********************
Jim had let him off around the corner and down the block, then had followed along slowly, until he'd found a parking spot in the middle of street Blair would be working that night.

Blair had ambled along, hunched in his coat and looking distinctly miserable in the cold night air. They'd gotten him some stuff that was even more threadbare than his own clothes, the rotten wool gloves he was wearing had long ago lost their fingertips, and he'd given up his boots in favour of rundown sneakers. His dirty and ragged clothing was all about two sizes too big, including his hat, so he looked like a lost waif, especially with his too pale face and those big baby blues gazing out at the world with such open innocence. With the hair and the earring, he looked like any other runaway kid, ten years younger than he really was.

"Oh, man," he grumbled as he rambled along, blowing on his hands, "I really hate the cold!"

In the truck, Ellison smiled with wry amusement as he muttered, "Teach you to volunteer for these things, Chief."

Blair spotted Old Joe sitting against a wall near a grate, and squatted down beside him. "Hey, man, how're ya doing?" he asked, sincerely interested. Blair worried about Old Joe…he was too fragile to have to spend the nights on cold streets.

The old man looked up at him in surprise, noting the distinctly different wardrobe. "You fall on hard times, kid?" he asked, his eyes sharp and speculative. Old Joe didn't miss much.

Blair looked up at the sky as he thought about Jim listening in the truck, and knew rule two or was it three…don't tell anyone you're working with the police…was in danger of getting trashed. "Oh, I'm okay, Joe," he said, with a slow smile. "Just poking around…seeing what I can hear or see. Too many dead people, lately, man. Not good."

Ellison stiffened in the truck as he muttered, "Damn it," under his breath. Sandburg was getting too close to the line. They should have realized the street people would notice something was up when he showed up looking just like one of them.

Old Joe's eyes had narrowed, as he gave Sandburg a worried look. "You're not getting mixed up in something that could hurt you? Are you?" he demanded. He liked this young one. He was good people. Blair cared about folks. Looking around, the old man went on, "You're not messing around on your own, are you?"

Blair shook his head once as he laid a reassuring hand on the old man's shoulder. "Don't worry…you might say I've got a Blessed Protector hanging around, keeping an eye on me…making sure I don't get into trouble," Sandburg said with a smile.

"Uh huh," the old man snorted. "Is that anything like a guardian angel, son?"

"Sort of," Blair nodded, his eyes dancing. Swallowing as he looked up and down the street, he asked, "Joe, you noticed anything lately that's not right? Hear any of the shopkeepers giving any of the people a harder time than usual?"

"No, can't say as I have," Old Joe replied, then asked with a distinctly ironic tone, "Why, you think some of them are tired of having us hanging around?"

Snorting softly, Blair shook his head, his expression a little sad. "I don't know…just guessing, right now," he replied. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a slip of paper and several coins. "Look, Joe, this is my number at home…if I'm not there, my roommate is a guy named Jim. He's good people…you can trust him. If you hear or see anything, would you let me know?"

The old man's sharp eyes had been scanning the street…and now they locked on the reflection in the side mirror of a very intense looking man in a blue pickup parked halfway down the street. Nodding, he said, "Sure, son, I'll call you." Keeping his gaze on Jim's reflection, he mused, "This Blessed Protector of yours wouldn't happen to drive a blue pickup, now, would he?"

Blair almost choked, and tried covering it with a cough. But, there was no mistaking the twinkle in Old Joe's eyes. "You spend enough time on the street, watching people, you notice who's watching back," the old man explained. "Tell your friend that most might not notice, but we got nothin' better to do than study people, notice who's around. Most folks think we're invisible, you know…they don't see us, so they figure we don't see them. But, we do."

Unable to resist grinning, though he managed not to look up the street at Jim, Blair nodded. "I'll tell him."

"He a cop?" Old Joe asked, swinging his eyes back to Blair. "He looks like a cop."

Blair rolled his eyes as he smiled again, vastly amused, knowing Jim would be hearing every word of the conversation. "There's no putting much past you, is there, old man?" he replied softly. Patting Old Joe on the shoulder, Blair murmured, "You take care of yourself, you hear me. And if you need anything…you call that number."

Joe smiled up at him as he nodded. "I don't need much, son…but I thank you for the concern. You're a good boy, Blair. You be careful, you hear?"

"I will," Blair assured him, as he continued wandering down along the street, holding his hand out as he went along, begging for nickels and dimes. Most rebuffed him, shoving past, ignoring him. Some swore at him, telling him to get out of the way. To them, he called, "Peace to you, brother." A very few would drop coins into his palm, and then hustle past as if almost ashamed of what they had done. "Thank you!" he called after them softly, hoping they would hear him, not wanting to embarrass them. And one out of hundred or so, would look him in the eye, and smile at him, as they handed him a dollar or two. They were blessed with a brilliant smile that brightened their world and made them wonder if they'd helped an angel unaware.

About an hour into his aimless ramble up and down the street, Blair heard some man shout, "Stop, thief! Rotten little bugger!"

He turned at the cry, and spotted Timmy dashing through the crowd, a pair of new gloves flopping in his hand, while a big, paunchy man chased him. Sniffing, rubbing his nose, backing a little sideways, Blair ignored young Tim as he flashed past with a cheeky grin, but managed to 'inadvertently' blunder into the path of his pursuer.

"Get out of my way," snarled the middle-aged man, puffing a little at the unusual exertion as he roughly shoved Blair against the wall.

"Hey, man, no offence, ya know!" Blair called after him, recognizing Marco from his earlier visits along the street. "Could hurt a guy…you didn't…but you could," he mumbled as if to himself, but really for his Sentinel's benefit. Jim didn't like anyone else shoving Sandburg against walls…that was his job. Blair grinned a little at that thought, then took up a position just a little beyond Marco's store, to beg in earnest, particularly of those who went in and out of the men's clothing establishment.

Marco, having lost sight of the kid when Blair blundered into him, gave him a foul look as he strode angrily back to his store. "Lousy homeless, good for nothing, punk," he muttered. "Get a job!" he spat at Blair, then disappeared inside.

"Temper, temper," Blair murmured, thinking again about what Mel had told him.

An hour later, Sandburg spotted Annie strutting along the street and wondered how she could possibly keep warm with a skirt that barely covered the essentials and a jacket that hung open to advertise some of her better assets.

"Hey, Beautiful," he called with a warm smile. "How are you?"

"Blair, darlin'" she replied, moving in to peck him on the cheek, then standing close while she tugged at his odd 'new' coat. "You forget how to dress yourself, sweetie?"

Blair smiled as he shook his head. "Nope, just trying out a new look," he replied.

"Am I mistaken, or are you standin' out here beggin'?" Annie asked, her head cocked a little to the side as she looked up at him. She really was a tiny little thing. "Havin' trouble makin' the rent money?"

Looking away, Blair shrugged self-consciously. "You know anybody who's not facing tough times this winter?" he asked, avoiding the question.

"Only the men who like what I offer," she replied tartly. "The other kids haven't been around today…" she probed, curious as to what was going down.

"No…it's gotten little scary on the streets, Annie," Blair replied soberly. "Are you being careful?"

She snickered at that, and he shook his head sadly, understanding. 'Careful' wasn't a luxury she could often afford. "Look, Annie," he pressed as he laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, "I'm serious. I don't want what happened to Janie to happen to you."

Sobering in her turn, she nodded and sighed. "I know you don't, baby," she said softly, appreciating his genuine concern. There weren't many regular people in the world who gave a damn about her.

Looking casually up and down the street, Blair pulled another slip of paper from his pocket, along with a handful of coins. Pressing it all into her hand, he murmured, "Look, you hear anything weird, see anything, or think there's any trouble going down, you call me, you hear? If I'm not there, my roommate, Jim, is a really good guy…tell him whatever you'd tell me, okay?"

Slipping the paper and the money into her coat pocket, Annie cast a quick look over her shoulder, then lifted her gaze back up to Blair's concerned eyes. "This Jim wouldn't be the dude in the pick-up, would he? He been sittin' there all night watchin' you, like you was good enough to eat. So, if he ain't a friend, chum, you better be careful of him, you hear? He looks mean."

Blair burst into a laugh. He couldn't help it. But, then he sobered, hoping whoever was murdering these poor people wasn't even half as observant as they were. Which made the fact that they hadn't noticed anything a little peculiar, now that he thought about it. "Looks can be deceiving, Annie," he murmured with a reassuring smile. "I just know I'd trust my roommate with my life…you can, too."

"If you say so, darlin'," she replied with a shiver. "He's a cop, ain't he?"

"He's my Blessed Protector, Annie," Blair replied with a soft smile.

"Okay, Blair," she huffed, "So don't tell me." Gazing up and down the street, shivering again, this time from the cold, she said wearily, "Well, I'm a workin' girl, so I'd better get my ass in gear and get to work. I'll call if I see or hear anythin' weirder than usual."

She gave him a quick hug and then was strutting away, smiling provocatively at passers-by…ignoring the man in the blue pick up, who was rubbing his eyes and shaking his head, unsure whether to just hang a sign around his neck that spelled, 'cop', or chuckle wearily about the repeated use of the 'Blessed Protector' line that Sandburg was handing out.

By the time Blair called it a night about a half hour after the shops had all closed up and the street was getting a deserted look, Jim didn't know whether to be amused or worried. Almost a dozen of the homeless had made a point of saying they'd spotted him after Blair had encouraged them to call him they had any information. This was not a good thing.

When Blair climbed into the truck, his teeth were chattering and he flicked the truck's heater up to 'high'. "Damn, it's cold out there," he grumbled, rubbing his arms.

"Uh huh," Ellison grunted as he pulled away from the curb on the dark side street, his eyes scanning for anyone who might have been watching them. "We'll be lucky if you don't come down with pneumonia, Chief."

"Yeah, well, so long as you don't go around saying 'I told you so,'" Blair replied as he sniffed and shivered.

Jim snorted, then frowned, "So much for your cover, eh, kid…at least with the homeless, themselves."

"My cover?" Blair protested, his eyes wide. "I'm not the only one who got blown, tonight, my friend. They sure had you pegged pretty quick."

"Yeah, so I heard," Ellison muttered, scowling. "I don't like it, Sandburg…if word gets out to the wrong people, you're a target."

"I thought the point was that as a supposedly homeless person, I'm a target, anyway," Blair shot back, then winced at the look on his Sentinel's face. Deciding some pacifying was in order, he shifted to a reassuring tone, as he went on, "Look, Jim…they're not the ones we need to worry about…they're the potential victims, remember? They're just looking out for me, man…like they look out for each other, as much as they can. It's really kinda touching, actually."

Unconvinced, but mollified marginally, Ellison nodded tightly. "Just stay in the light, where I can see you," he said quietly.

"You got it, man. You hero, me coward," Blair replied, settling back in his seat as he rubbed his forehead. He was tired. Begging was hard work.

"Why'd you stop that store owner from catching the kid?" Ellison asked, thinking back over the evening. "And why isn't that kid in a home someplace? And, while I'm asking questions, why'd you spend so much of the night after that outside the guy's store. He sure didn't appreciate you hanging around."

"Marco Fontini," Blair replied, continuing when Jim sent him a questioning look. "The store owner is Marco Fontini. He's got a real hate on for the homeless…thinks their deaths are something to laugh at. Man, he's not a nice guy. The kid is Tim Wiseman, but I doubt that's really his name. I think he made it up. He's been in and out of care…his mom disappeared, is likely dead. Doesn't know who his dad is. Not interested in trusting anyone or in anyone's help…tough kid, marshmallow inside, but scared to show it."

"Tell me more about this Marco guy," Ellison encouraged as they drove back across the dark city.

"Him and the guy next door, Les Parker, exchange their views from time to time as they get some air on the street. My students overheard a couple of conversations between them, and also picked up on their attitude during the brief interviews conducted with all the owners along that stretch of Hastings. Anyway, the other day, one of my students, Melissa Goodings, said she and Andrea Waters overheard them talking about how the deathswere a 'mercy', then laughing as they said something about, 'blessed are the merciful'. Probably nothing…but, when you've got nothing, maybe it's something. I don't know," Blair muttered, stifling a yawn. "Man, I'm wiped."

Jim pulled into his parking spot. "Okay, kid, that's enough for tonight. Hot shower for you, and then into bed."

"Yes, Mom," Blair murmured as he climbed out of the truck. Then snickered.

But, as he stood under the pounding hot spray a few minutes later, he found himself feeling a little guilty. He was the only panhandler he knew of who got a lift home to a nice place with a hot shower and a comfortable bed.
********************
The next couple of evenings were much like the first, only colder and more miserable. Blair got drenched with sleety rain the third night, and was sneezing by the time he got back to the truck. Jim already had the heat cranked on full, and took off his own jacket to wrap around his shivering partner.

"You look like a drowned rat," Ellison observed, grabbing up the towel he'd brought along when he'd noticed the weather earlier in the day, and briskly rubbing Sandburg's hair to dry him off as much as possible.

Blair flapped his hands to push Jim away, as he protested, "Ow! Would you let me dry my own hair, please?" When Jim backed off and left him to it, he muttered, "Sheesh…like I can't take care of myself…"

He'd have been more convincing if he'd hadn't sneezed and coughed just at that moment.

Shaking his head, Jim muttered miserably, "Pneumonia…you're going to get pneumonia…"

"It's just a cold, man, would you relax?" Blair cajoled, his voice a little hoarse. "I'm taking Echinacea …I'll be fine."

Ellison rolled his eyes but refrained from comment. They had a deal going. Sandburg didn't comment on Wonderburgers for lunch, and Ellison didn't make smart remarks about herbs and witchdoctors. They'd made it through a week so far, but the detective had to bite his tongue on this one.

"This stakeout isn't getting us anywhere, Chief," Ellison said, changing the subject…well, sort of. He'd really like to get the kid off the assignment before he had to take him to Emergency for pneumonia.

Sniffing, shaking out his damp curls, Blair had to agree. Shifting to face Jim, he replied, "Well, we said we'd give it a week…and, I've been thinking. You know how observant the homeless people are, man…well, if they haven't noticed anyone different around, then whoever is doing this must be someone they take for granted on the streets, someone they don't think twice about seeing around."

Jim thought about that and nodded. It made sense. "You could have a point, there, Junior…good thinking," he said.

Pleased, Blair sat back against the seat. "I think Marco and Les are getting really peeved with me, always hanging around their shops. Maybe we'll get a break," he reflected thoughtfully.

Ellison rolled his eyes thinking that some 'breaks' he didn't need. If they really were the ones who were behind the killings, two more of which had happened that week, it didn't reassure him to know that they were getting fed up with having Sandburg loitering around their doors.
********************
"You know," Old Joe reflected as he watched the pick up drive past the alley's entrance and off into the night, "I really like that kid…I'm worried, though, that he's headed for trouble."

"Hmm, he's one of the Chosen," his companion agreed, nodding his head as he sat scrunched beside Old Joe, sharing their body heat. "A fool, some might say, wandering where wise men wouldn't go…"

Joe barked out a laugh. "Yes, one of the innocent fools…one of the blessed, I'm betting," he murmured, cutting his friend a quick look.

"We're all blessed," Gabe replied with an ethereal smile. "All loved…all can have peace. Only have to ask."

"Well, I guess you should know," Old Joe mused, having heard Gabe's tale of being an archangel. Frankly, he thought the younger man a little touched in the head, but Gabe was harmless…gentle, somehow. Another of life's 'innocent fools'.

Looking at the old man beside him, Gabe's eyes softened, warm with compassion and love. "I know many things…I know that the pure in heart will see God, and that the meek shall inherit the earth," he said softly, continuing with his gentle, lilting voice, "I know the poor in spirit will rejoice in the kingdom of Heaven. Like you, my friend, I know not to be concerned about my life, what I shall eat or drink, or what I shall put on, for the Lord will provide. And…I know that the merciful will be blessed with mercy."

Smiling as he shook his head, Old Joe murmured, "You're an odd one, you are, Gabe."

"Am I? Have you known many archangels?" Gabe replied, gently amused.

"I don't know," Joe replied with a teasing glance. "But, I suspect, sometimes, that I may have met a few."

"You are a good man, Joe…God loves you," Gabe replied, leaning back against the wall as he gazed up at the few stars he could see through the scudding clouds.

Old Joe chuckled again at that. "You just said God loves everybody," the old man laughed.

"That he does…but, you, old friend, you he loves especially and he is looking forward to bringing you home," Gabe murmured, then turned his strange bright gaze to Joe's startled eyes. "Fear not what the morrow may bring…there is sufficient unto the day."

"I gave up worryin' 'bout tomorrow a long time ago, son," Joe replied, at ease with himself and with his lot in life. But, despite the fact that he didn't really take Gabe seriously, he wondered at the other man's words…wondered at the marvel that Heaven would be…and if an old sinner like him would ever see it.

"God loves a sinner," Gabe murmured, as if to himself.

"God loves everybody," snorted Joe, refusing to take any of Gabe's ramblings seriously.

"Amen," Gabe replied, then smiled beatifically.

They sat there a while longer, Joe having chosen the spot in the dark alley deliberately. He'd noticed where that young Blair had been loitering for days now, and had figured out the kid was interested in the doings of the men's clothing shop and the shoe store next door. Every one on the street knew to avoid those two tight-fisted, mean-spirited men, who thought the homeless were little better than stray dogs. Well, everyone but young Tim, he thought with an indulgent smile, who seemed to think tormenting them was a kind of challenge. Though Old Joe thought it a stretch to imagine that the really very ordinary men were behind the killings, the fact was, someone around here was. If Blair thought they were worth watching, that was good enough for him.

But, it was getting cold…and he was wet clear through. Sighing, he figured it was about time to head on back to his bunk, a little corner of comfort he'd scrounged for himself and a friend in the basement of the abandoned building one street over and two blocks north. There were rumours that it was going to be demolished soon, and he'd have to find them another little corner somewheres, but for now, it suited their needs. He was just about to stretch, when Gabe laid a gentle hand on his arm, and nodded silently up the alley, toward the back of the men's wear shop.

A massive shadow moved then, close by the owner's car, which was still parked in its usual spot. Squinting a little, to see better, Joe tilted his head to listen. It was hell getting old. Nothing worked as good as it used to, he thought, vaguely annoyed. The back door of the shop squeaked open, and he could just make out the owner's shadow as he turned to lock up behind him.

"Hey, boss," came the low, harsh whisper.

"Santos," Marco acknowledged quietly, turning to look up and down the lane. "You're doing a fine job, kid," he added, digging into his pocket and pulling out a thick envelope. "Keep up the good work."

"Any special jobs you want done?" Santos asked, as he took the envelope and slipped it into the pocket of his leather jacket. Easiest money he'd ever made.

"If you run across the brat, I'm tired of him hanging around…and the hippy is bothering my customers," Marco replied with a shrug. "But…no hurry. You're making good progress."

"See ya, 'round," Santos murmured with a mock salute as he ambled on down the lane, not even noticing until he nearly tripped over them, the two homeless dudes scrunched up against the wall. He sniffed and glared at them, but kept walking. The boss didn't like to have garbage left lying around outside his place. A moment later, the shopkeeper had started up his car, backed it out of its narrow slot and turned to head out the far end of the lane.

"Judge not, lest ye be judged," Gabe whispered in his odd singsong voice.

"Ain't that the truth," Old Joe replied as he eased his old bones up onto his feet. "I've got a call to make, Gabe. I'll see you around." He knew Santos…he was a bad one, mean. Big, too, and a bully. Hung with the neighbourhood gang. Maybe that kid, Blair, had been onto something after all. As he hustled away, staying to the shadows, he didn't hear Gabe's soft reply.

"Later, Joe," Gabe murmured with a warm smile. "I'll see you later…."
********************
Ellison woke sharply as the telephone pealed through the dark apartment. Rolling over to grab the extension by his bed, he snapped, "Ellison," as he rubbed his eyes, then checked the time on his watch.

"We got another one, Jim," Rafe said. "You said you wanted to be called…."

"Yeah, I did," Jim replied, yawning. "It's our case. Where are you?"

Rafe gave the directions, and Ellison hung up. Heading downstairs for a quick shower to wake himself up, he pounded on Sandburg's door. "Up and at 'em, Chief…we got a call," he yelled, then poked his head in to see Blair pull a pillow over his head. "Now, Sandburg," he called again, ignoring the moaned protest for mercy as he headed into the bathroom.

Still half asleep when he climbed up into the truck, Blair yawned, shivered, and gave Ellison a hateful look. "It's the middle of the night, man," he grumbled. "Couldn't this wait until morning? I really don't like to be callous or anything, but if the guy's dead, he won't mind if we don't show up right away."

"Quit your grousing, Chief," Ellison replied as he swung the pickup onto the street. "You're the one who volunteered for this assignment…not to mention the one who wanted to tag along as an observer in the first place."

"Yeah, right," Blair nodded, rubbing the back of his neck, shivering again. "Did I ever mention that I hate winter?"

"Once or twice," Ellison replied, unable to repress a smile. "Once or twice…"

Less than half an hour later, they pulled up close to the scene of the crime. Rafe was waiting for them and waved them toward an alley, about ten feet from a lighted telephone booth, near the corner of Hastings and Kent.

"What have you got?" Ellison asked as they approached, Blair plodding, hunched and cold in his wake.

"Another knifing," Rafe reported as he led them down the alley for about thirty feet. The patrolman who'd found the body was standing sentry, and the crime team hadn't shown up yet to take pictures or gather evidence. "You're the first ones here."

Nodding, Jim squatted down close to the small heap of rags, Blair trundling up behind him.

Even as Jim recognized the victim and was about to order Sandburg back, the Sentinel heard a sudden gasp, and then Blair whirled away, muttering, "Oh my God, oh, God…shit! Shit! Damn it to hell!" By the time the Sentinel had turned up and around, Blair was on the other side of the alley, doubled over and retching, his heart rate spiking, panting for breath around the sob lodged in his throat.

Laying a hand on his back, bending over him, Ellison murmured, "Chief…I'm sorry."

"Damn it, Jim!" Blair swore again, his voice trembling. "He was just a harmless old man. Why'd someone have to…"

"I don't know…that's what we're trying to find out, remember?" Ellison replied, his tone compassionate.

"Yeah," Blair whispered as he gingerly stood straighter, his grief-stricken gaze going to the body of his friend. "I want this guy, Jim…God, help me…I want this bastard."

"We all do…and we'll get him," Jim affirmed, rubbing Sandburg's back, watching for signs of shock. "Why don't you go wait in the truck? I can handle this."

"You smell anything?" Blair asked, his expression intent, his jaw tight against his anger.

"Yeah," Ellison replied, looking away. "'Brute' was here tonight," he confirmed, referring to the name of the cheap cologne.

"In more ways than one," Sandburg murmured, sniffing, blinking hard. "Ah, Joe," he whispered. "Why'd it have to be you?"

"Jim!" Rafe's voice cut in as he called over from where he was squatting near the body. "I've found something. You'd better have a look."

Curious, Ellison moved closer, Blair trailing behind him, his arms wrapped tightly around his body. He wasn't about to wait this one out in the truck. Old Joe deserved to have someone who cared about him here with him tonight.

Dropping down beside Rafe, Ellison looked at what the younger detective had in his hand, the flashlight beam illuminating the scrap of paper and the quarter. "I found this clutched in his hand," Rafe said quietly. "It's your phone number."

"And mine," Blair added, bleakly, looking away, remembering the phone booth only a few steps away. His head dropped and he had to swallow hard at the implications. Old Joe had probably seen something, and had been on his way to call him. The murderer must have spotted him, and killed him to prevent the call. "Oh, Joe," he whispered sadly, feeling the first stab of guilt. "I'm so sorry, man…I'm just so damned sorry."

Later, as they walked back to the truck, Sandburg asked soberly, "What'll happen to him…his body?"

"The City will see to his burial…there's a section for indigents in Mount Moriah Cemetary," Jim replied quietly.

"Pauper's grave," Blair murmured with a sigh. "Not that Old Joe would have cared. He was just old, Jim, with no pension, no relatives…couldn't find work anymore. Just old, man. He should have…he should have had a better end than this. He was decent…and smart, you know. He'd thought a lot about things, about life. I really liked him…respected him."

"I know, kid," Jim replied. "I'm really sorry."

Nodding, Blair opened the door to the truck. "I want to go to his funeral, Jim."

"Okay, Chief, we'll go," Ellison assured him as he climbed in behind the wheel. He turned on the ignition, but then paused before shifting the truck into gear. Turning to look directly at his partner, he laid an arm along the seat as he said quietly, but firmly, "This wasn't your fault, Sandburg."

Looking away, Blair shrugged. "He was on his way to call me, man…if I hadn't asked him…" he said sorrowfully.

"You don't know that," Jim replied. "And, even if that's true, you didn't kill him…the murderer did that."

Heaving out a shaky breath, Blair nodded. "I know," he whispered, so softly that even Jim barely heard. "I just feel so bad…"

Stroking the bowed head, swallowing his own grief at his partner's suffering, Ellison murmured, "I know, kid. Just remember…it wasn't your fault."
********************
The next night, Blair was once again at his post outside Marco's establishment, smiling like an angel whenever the surly owner glared at him. But, those passing moments of joy were about the only bright spots in what was shaping up to be another long, boring, dismal evening of trying to achieve the impossible … keeping warm on a December evening in Cascade while standing in the street, begging in the rain.

Blair still ached about Old Joe. Intellectually, he knew Jim was right…but emotionally, well, he also knew the old man wouldn't be dead if it wasn't for him. As he shuffled in place, begging for coins from everyone who passed by, he was actually glad of the rain. It made the fact that he couldn't seem to stop tears from welling up in his eyes a little less obvious.

At one point, he thought he might be really losing it. He heard a soft, musical voice whisper softly nearby, "To everything there is a season…and a time, for every purpose under Heaven."

Swinging his head around, his eyes wide and his lips parted in shock, he couldn't figure out where the voice had come from.

But, he'd recognized it.

It was Gabe, that guy from the station. The one who said he was an archangel…and that the hard part about a miracle was making it look like it was an accident.

For a moment, Blair felt a warmth envelope him and he shivered a little, not sure what was going on. "Gabe?" he murmured, knowing Jim could probably hear him and would think he was crazy. "Gabe… would you…would you make sure Old Joe is all right?" he asked.

And then the voice came again, so softly he could barely hear it. "Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs will be the Kingdom of Heaven."

Heaving out a sigh, Blair closed his eyes tight for a moment as he bowed his head and swallowed hard. Then, smiling softly if sadly, feeling some measure of peace for the first time since they'd found Old Joe, he murmured, "Thanks, Gabe…he was a really good man."

Stealing a quick look at Jim in truck, a little down the block and across the street, Blair could tell from his friend's expression that he hadn't been the only one hearing disembodied voices. Grinning to himself at the blank look of denial he saw on the Sentinel's face, he said softly, "Nothing like the mysterious, man… it's wondrous…really wondrous…."

Just then, the door of the shop slammed, and a voice yelled, "Come back here, you little tramp!"

Tim, giggling like mad, darted past Blair and slipped around the corner, down the nearby alley. Moving away from his position on the wall to look after the running kid, Blair just happened to once again find himself tangled up with an enraged Marco.

But, this time, there was no time to enjoy the humour of it.

A startled, and clearly terrified, high-pitched yelp, sharp and cut short, echoed from the alley.

"TIM!" Blair cried, alarmed as he shoved Marco away from him and ran toward the darkness. "TIM!"

In seconds, Blair was racing down the alley, just catching a quick glimpse of a big man hauling the struggling child around the corner. Pouring on the speed, Sandburg slid around the corner, again just in time to see the assailant drag Tim into the mouth of yet another alley a few feet further along, moving deeper into the warren of narrow lanes as they moved toward the rundown inner city. Without a second thought, Blair raced after them, calling as he ran, "Jim…we're in the alley behind the stores…heading down another lane to the left and north!"

Cursing, Jim had called in for back up and was already long out of his truck and racing after Sandburg, but once his partner had entered the alley, he'd lost sight of him. Catching his voice, Ellison followed, taking the cutoff indicated, praying that this time, Sandburg had the directions right, and hadn't meant 'right' when he'd said, 'left'. As he raced into the mouth of that laneway, Ellison had his senses on full power, listening for the sound of running footsteps, for his Guide's voice, telling him which way to go.

But, they were all wearing sneakers, soft soled and virtually silent, except for the splashes through puddles…and with the constant splash of cars through puddles from the streets all around him, he couldn't distinguish any that held any meaning. "SANDBURG!" he shouted in frustration, listening with his senses wide open for Blair's voice, but a siren sounded just then, ricocheting through his head, deafening him, making him double over in pain as his hands came up fast to cover his ears.

Straightening, standing at the end of the alley, with four more different dark entrances to other lanes to choose from, and no clue as to which one would lead to his Guide, the Sentinel bellowed again, "SANDBURG!"

But…there was no answer, not even an echo.
********************
Blair, assuming Jim was right behind him, kept after the guy hauling a struggling armful of irate and terrified child down the dark lanes, gradually gaining, because Tim was slowing the big guy down.

Getting close enough, finally, Blair yelled, "Let the kid GO!" as he lunged forward into a tackle. A little surprised by his own success, Sandburg snagged the guy's legs, below the knee and pulled him down. Tim took the opportunity to roll free and scamper off down the lane. Thinking that was probably a good idea, Blair was about to do the same, when the guy rolled and grabbed him by the hair, yanking his head back painfully.

"Now would be a good time, Jim," he grated through clenched teeth, as he twisted and kicked, grabbing at the arm that held him as he screamed out at the top of his lungs, "JIM! HEY, JIM!"

But a siren was blaring in the distance, and he began to realize he might be in really big trouble here.

Truly desperate now, Sandburg fought and bit the arm that tried to gain a purchase around his neck. God, but the guy was huge! "Leggo the hair, man!" Blair yelled when his head was pulled back again.

"Hippy freak," the low gutteral voice responded with a snarl.

His eyes flashing wildly around the alley, looking for something to fight back with, Blair spotted the lid of a trash can, and lunged for it, yelping as some hair was yanked from his scalp, desperately stretching out his fingers …got it! He whirled around, smashing as hard as he could…not realizing that he'd knocked the blade out of the other guy's hand. Startled, Santos grunted, and let his hair loose. Blair scrambled away, lurching for his feet. But, Santos was on him in an instant, dragging him back down.

For all that he did his best, Sandburg was no match for a bigger, heavier, much meaner man who was a street fighter, virtually by profession, and a murderer by choice. A heavy fist smashed into his face, stunning him, and then his head was grabbed, lifted and smacked back down onto the wet concrete, hard.

When Blair went limp, Santos contented himself with a kick to the smaller man's body, then hurriedly looked around for the knife that had flown out of his hand. But, it was dark, and there was a couple of decades' worth of trash in that back lane. Cursing, wondering who that 'Jim' guy was, that the hippy was yelling for, and more specifically, if he was anywhere nearby, Santos decided to write the knife off. Leaning down, he hauled Blair over his shoulder and ran off down the alley.

A knife wasn't the only way to kill someone.

There were lots of ways.

Disappearing into the darkness, Santos headed deep into the inner city, to an old abandoned building.

The gas connections hadn't been shut off yet…well, they had, but he'd figured out how to turn them back on. And the place was scheduled to be torn down the next day. Should make for an impressive 'boom'.

And, the boss would be pleased…no more hippy bothering his precious customers.

Santos didn't notice the small, silent shadow that ghosted after him, following him into the darkness.
********************
Jim was almost mad with fury at his helplessness. Simon had arrived at the alley, and they'd set up a search grid, calling in all the cops in the sector, but it had been almost two hours, and they weren't getting anywhere. No one had seen anything. No one had heard anything. No one knew anything. No one was any damned help at all.

Grimly, the Sentinel shrugged off Simon's attempts to calm him down and began his own patient search, one alley after another, his head cocked, listening, sniffing the air around him, eyes searching for any miniscule sign of his Guide's passing.

It was laborious, time-consuming work. He'd finished three of the four alleys that had branched off from Blair's last known location and was now working on the fourth, knowing there had to be something here. There wasn't anywhere else the kid could have gone.

Sniffing, he caught the scents first, faded, dampened out of the air by the rain, barely there. 'Brute' cologne…and the scent of Sandburg's herbal shampoo. Concentrating even harder now, his eyes raked the lane, and his torch picked up the slight glint. Kneeling, he found long curly strands of chestnut coloured hair. Unconsciously, he put the 'evidence' in a small envelope and stuck it into his pocket. Pulling out his cell, he dialed Simon's number, snapping, "I've found the beginnings of a trail, about two blocks north and east of your location." Without waiting for acknowledgement, he slapped the cell closed and shoved it back into his pocket, his eyes still raking the area.

There was another reflected glint of light from under a pile of discarded boxes. Kneeling down, he spotted the knife. For a moment, he couldn't breathe, but he quickly reminded himself that his sense of smell hadn't picked up any trace of blood, nor had his vision. Somehow, Sandburg must have fought the guy off, for a bit, anyway, long enough to knock the knife away. Closing his eyes, Ellison let out a long, slow breath, and then he was again examining the dark lane.

Simon's car peeled into the mouth of the alley and he jumped out of the vehicle. "What have you got?" he called as he loped over.

"Some of Sandburg's hair…and I think, maybe, a murder weapon," Ellison replied, his voice tight as he waved down at the blade. "I'm heading up that way, to see what else I can pick up…" he reported as he stood and loped off to the end of the alley, frustrated to find there were another half-dozen options of possible direction that led off within five hundred feet of the lane's mouth.

"Dammit," the Sentinel sighed as he ran a hand over the back of his head. "Sandburg…where the hell are you?"
********************
Blair came to just as the big guy he'd been fighting with finished checking the thick cord that he'd used sometime ago to tie off his ankles. His hands were already bound behind him and there was a gag in his mouth. Ignoring the headache that was pounding mercilessly, his eyes wide, terribly afraid, he looked around to try to figure out where he was.

It was dark, and he was scrunched into a very small room…a closet maybe? It smelled damp and musty, and was very cold…a deserted building? Santos looked up just then, and from the reflection of light, from the small penlight he'd left on the floor beside him, in Sandburg's eyes, he realized his latest victim had at last woken up.

Standing, he leaned down and grabbed the front of Blair's coat, hauling the smaller man up until his feet were dangling so that Santos could sneer directly into his face. Blair stared at him, not sure what to expect, wishing he was anywhere but here.

"So, short-stuff," Santos growled, "How's your head?"

Laughing at his own wittiness, getting off on the terror he could see in the hippy's eyes, he snarled then, "I didn't think you were ever going to wake up…I've been babysitting you for hours. But I wanted you to know what to expect…wanted to tell you, personally…"

He shook Blair violently then slammed him back against the wall, letting him drop to the ground.

"Oommphhh!" Sandburg grunted as he hit, and crumpled, trying to pull himself into the smallest space possible against the wall, his knees curled up to his chest, as he stared up with trepidation at the man who seemed to really enjoy tormenting guys who were smaller than he was, and all tied up to boot.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you," Santos taunted him.

Despite himself, Blair rolled his eyes and swallowed in relief.

"Nope…that's going to kill you," his tormentor continued, swinging his penlight over across a filthy, wooden floor to rest upon some pipes coming out of the wall.

Blair's eyes followed the light, squinting a little to figure out what the big guy meant. His mouth suddenly dry, his gut twisting painfully, he understood.

It was a gas-line.

Swinging his gaze back up to the man who loomed over him in the doorway, he lifted his brows, requesting a tad more information, if the fellow didn't mind.

"Don't think you can get out," Santos told him. "I'm going to lock you in, but smash some holes through the door…and then I'm going to turn on the gas…and leave. If the gas doesn't get you, well, they're bringing this building down in the morning. I doubt they'll ever find what's left of you."

Sandburg groaned and closed his eyes. This was not good. Definitely, not good.

Without more ado, Santos slammed the door shut, sealing him into darkness. There were a few, loud, smashing kicks, and Blair pressed his eyes closed as he twisted his head away from the wooden splinters that flew into the small cubicle as his assailant kicked in the panels, enough to let the gas seep through. Blair heard something being propped or wedged against the other side of the door, and then the big man's steps as he crossed the room, the holes in the door now letting flashes of light dance in and out of the darkness. A few moments later, he heard that ugly laugh again, and then the sound of footsteps receding, heading down a flight of stairs and then fading into the distance.

Leaving him alone, to die in the cold and the darkness.

"IMMM!" Blair wailed, through the gag, as he swiveled and kicked out at the door, wondering how much time he had before the gas knocked him out.
********************
Tim watched that brute Santos come out of the building and head off down the alley. Lifting his eyes, he stared at the three-story, abandoned tenement with boarded up windows, wondering what to do. It had been hours…so long he'd wondered if Santos had gone out another way. Sick at heart, young Tim was certain that Santos must have killed Blair. But, he couldn't just leave, not unless he was sure…just in case he might still be able to help. Still, he hesitated. He really didn't like the idea of coming across a body in the dark, empty building…after a moment more, he crept across the alley and snuck into the building, standing to listen.

He could hear banging from somewhere up above and felt hope flare in his chest.

Blair was still alive!

The scurrying sound away to his left made him jump. Rats, he thought with disgust. I hate rats.

Careful in the pitch-blackness of the building, wary of the rickety, unstable staircase, he made his way up, following the sound. As he climbed higher, his nose wrinkled against the distant rank odour of rotten eggs. Grimacing, he realized Santos must have opened a gas line. The banging above drew him on, past the second floor and up to the third. He sure wished he could see something. As he climbed, having to be careful to skirt around gaps in the steps, feeling his way in the dark, he lost track of time, but figured it must have been at least fifteen or twenty minutes since Santos had left by the time he made it to the top of the third floor landing.

Pressing on, he crept down the hall, staying close to the wall, knowing these old places had rotten floors and gaps where you'd least expect them. The banging was louder now…but it was getting slower.

Finally, he felt a doorway, and heard the banging straight ahead. The smell of rotten eggs was a lot stronger here, too. Easing forward, he called out, "Blair? You in here?"

The banging stopped, and he heard a muffled cry. Creeping forward, on his hands and knees to feel his way, he found the board that had been wedged against the door, and pulled it away. Standing, he pulled the door open, peering into the darkness. "Blair?" he called softly.

"MMMPPPHH!" Sandburg replied, hitching himself forward, taking care not to kick the kid in the darkness.

He felt small hands on his body, tracing their way to his head. Finally, thank God, the gag was pulled out of his mouth.

"Umm…oh, thanks, Tim," he blurted, his voice a little hoarse. "Can you untie my hands and feet?"

"I'll try," Tim replied, a disembodied voice in the darkness. Again, small hands traveled over him, down to his feet. "The knots are too hard…and I don't have a knife," the child reported, his voice tight.

"It's okay, try my hands," Blair directed, swiveling around to give the kid access.

"Nope…sorry," Tim whispered, sounding like he might be close to tears.

"Okay…that's okay," Blair reassured him. "We've got to get out of here…away from the gas. It's making me really sleepy, you know..." Fighting the dizziness, Blair shook his head, then continued, "Can you help me up…I'll hop over to the door."

"There're holes in the floor all over the place in these old rat-traps," Tim told him nervously. "You might 'hop' right into one."

"Great," Blair breathed, fighting a sense of nausea at the image the kid's words had evoked. "Okay, you crawl ahead of me, and I'll roll after you," he suggested then, thinking what fun that would be, with his hands tied behind his back.

"Okay," Tim agreed, reaching out a hand to grab onto Blair's leg. "This way."

Sandburg made it out of the apartment, and partway down the hall, before Tim discovered some rotten boards, and a hole. "I don't think you should try rolling over this," he muttered, scared.

Blair was having difficulty keeping his eyes open, and he was worried about the vague sound in Tim's voice. He had to get the kid out of the building and away from the gas. Panting a little, he said, "Tim, I really need you to help me. If you reach into my coat pocket…you'll find some small pieces of paper and a bunch of quarters. Call the number on the paper, and ask for Jim…Jim Ellison…or call Cascade Police, and tell them where I am, okay? So that they come get me?"

"The police, man?" Tim objected, with the hint of whine mingled with disbelief.

"It's okay…they'll help. You…you don't have to tell them…your name," Blair panted, struggling to stay awake. "Now…go on…hurry. That gas'll knock you out if you stay…any longer."

Tim reached out and patted his arm. "Thanks for saving me from Santos, Blair," he said quietly, and then he was off, scampering along the wall, and down the stairs.

"Thanks for…your help, too…" Blair called after him, his voice echoing weakly in the darkness.

Laying back, resting his cheek on the filthy floor, hoping that maybe fresh air was coming up from below through the nearby hole, Blair closed his eyes. Would Tim call the police? Or Jim? They'd added Jim's cell number to the home number on the slips of paper the night before. It gave any one trying to reach him a better chance of making contact.

Even if Tim did call, would Jim find him in time?

He was just about asleep, feeling chilled and sick, when a warm breath passed over him and he felt a hand lightly stroke his forehead.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy…" whispered a soft voice.

"Gabe?" Blair murmured, confused…and then he lost consciousness.
********************
It took Tim another twenty minutes to make his way out of the building. Scared and very worried about Blair, he hesitated, wondering what to do, the quarters and the note burning in his small fist.

Blair said the cops'd help, he reminded himself, not much believing it. So far as he'd ever noticed, the cops didn't take all that much interest in the homeless, except to hustle them along or into the drunk tanks if they were stoned. Still, he had to try. Blair would die up there without help. Frowning, he looked up and down the alley, trying to remember where the nearest phone would be.

Turning to race down the dark lane, keeping to the shadows, he sped off into the night.
********************
Jim pulled his chirping phone from his pocket, barking, "Ellison" as his eyes continued to scan the dark lane, and he kept straining to pick up any trace of scent.

"Is this Jim?" a small voice asked.

Frowning, covering his other ear so that he could hear better, he replied, "Yeah, this is Jim. Who's this?"

"Blair said I should call you…he's in real trouble!" the child's voice replied in a rush, ignoring the request to identify himself.

"Where is he? What kind of trouble?" Jim demanded, his heart clenching at the fear in the kid's voice.

"In an abandoned building…a tenement…on Saanich just north of Wesley. He's all tied up, on the third floor…I couldn't get him out," the voice sniffed, stricken. "The gas is turned on…and he was falling asleep."

"Oh, God," Ellison breathed, twisting around to face the direction indicated. It wasn't more than a block away. "Okay…thanks… I'm on my way."

Punching Simon's number, Ellison shouted into the phone as he raced down along the alley. "I've found him. Abandoned tenement, third floor, Saanich north of Wesley…gas is ON. Meet me there. Call an ambulance."

Again, without waiting for a reply, Ellison shoved the phone into his pocket and tore around the corner, across the dark, deserted street, then up along Saanich.

"Which one, which one?" he mumbled, gazing with frustration at the abandoned tenements on either side of the street. This whole block was scheduled for demolition.

Forcing himself to calm down, he went to one entrance, then the next, sniffing, listening for a heartbeat. On the second try, he found the trace of 'Brute' in the entranceway, and holding the flashlight to illuminate his way, he plunged up the stairs. "SANDBURG!" he yelled, hating the fact that he got no answer.

One of the steps gave way under his weight, and he almost fell, but he lunged forward and grabbed a step higher up, pulling himself up onto more stable footing. His sensitive sense of smell was almost overwhelmed by the rotten egg odour that was pumped with the gas, to let people know when they had a leak. As he climbed higher, the smell got heavier.

"SANDBURG!" he yelled again, as he neared the third floor landing. He could make out the faint sound of a heartbeat…but it was slow. Too slow.

A moment more, and he'd turned the corner out of the stairwell, the beam from his flashlight playing along the hall…picking up the crumpled form of his Guide, lying close to the edge of a big hole in the floor. Testing his footing, he made his way quickly to his partner's side, and wasted no time in hauling Sandburg up and over his shoulder in a fireman's lift. Easing back along the wall, wary of the rotten flooring, he made his way back to the stairwell, and then began the precarious descent to the street below.

"JIM!" Simon's voice echoed from below.

"I've got him," Ellison called back. "He's alive. The gas is thick up here, Simon."

"I'll call it in," Banks shouted back, adding, "The ambulance is on its way."

Before Jim made it to the ground floor, he heard the sirens approaching, and then the flashing lights strobed through the entrance. Simon was waiting there for him, and waved him toward the attendants standing by the stretcher.

Jim had barely laid Blair down when they had an oxygen mask over his face, one attendant cutting him loose from the cords that bound him, the other taking vital signs. Sandburg's face was a bluish gray, his breathing shallow and he lay like a rag-doll, limp and unresponsive.

Simon put a hand on Jim's shoulder, leaning close as they watched, neither man capable of speech as they wondered if they'd found the kid in time.

In what seemed like only seconds, the attendants were running, wheeling the stretcher toward the waiting ambulance.

"Go with him, Jim," Simon called. "I'll be right behind you."

As if it needed to be said, he thought wryly as he looked after Ellison, who had taken off right behind the stretcher and was even now climbing into the back. Moments later, the ambulance was tearing down the dark street, heading toward the hospital.

Nobody had noticed the small shadow that lurked behind a dumpster, wide eyes watching as his friend was hastily treated and taken away to the hospital.
********************
By the time Simon ran into the Emergency Unit, Jim was pacing like a caged panther in front of one of the treatment rooms down the hall.

"How's he doing?" Banks asked as he headed toward his friend's side.

"He's…he's not breathing on his own," Jim replied, his face stark and pale. "His blood pressure was too low…he'd gone into shock…and his breathing was almost non-existent when we got here, but they've intubated him and have him on a respirator. They…they kicked me out, and I didn't want to waste time fighting with them."

"He's going to be all right, Jim," Simon soothed, hoping he was right.

"Maybe," Jim replied, swallowing. "He breathed in a lot of gas, Simon…he was out for a while…"

Simon looked away, nodding tightly, his hands on his hips. He didn't need Ellison to spell it out for him. Gas and brain cells, let alone oxygen deprivation, weren't a good mix.
********************
The doctor came out just as they were wheeling Blair out on the way to get a series of skull x-rays, and then he'd be moved directly up to the Intensive Care Unit.

Jim was torn between following the stretcher and hearing what the doctor had to say. Sandburg had looked so…vulnerable…as they'd hustled him past.

"I'm Doctor Ortega," the emergency physician said, eying the two tall men with weary speculation.

"I'm Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD, and this is Detective Jim Ellison, Sandburg's partner," Simon replied. "How's he doing?"

"Well, in addition to the gas inhalation, it's clear that he suffered a solid blow to the back of his head. But, his reflexes are responding, as are his pupils to light stimulation, both of which are good signs. We'll leave him on the respirator for the rest of the night, and see if he regains consciousness…if so, and he's alert, we should be able to let him breathe on his own in the morning," Dr. Ortega replied. "Mr. Sandburg seems to have been a lucky man, tonight…another ten or fifteen minutes…" The doctor shrugged. Seeing a nurse motion to him from down the hall, he said, "If you'll excuse me…"

"Can I see him?" Jim demanded, taking the doctor's arm to keep him from rushing away.

"We've sent him for skull x-rays and then he'll be moved up to ICU…you can check with the desk there," Dr. Ortega replied, and then moved briskly off down the hall.

Jim blew out a long sigh as he rubbed the back of his neck. Simon patted him on the shoulder as they made their way toward the elevators. "He's going to be fine, Jim," Banks said again, and this time, there was more confidence in his voice.

"Yeah," Ellison replied, feeling shaky. "Yeah…looks like he is."

But it had been a little too close for the liking of one Sentinel and self-styled Blessed Protector.
********************
As Blair struggled back to consciousness, at first, he wasn't aware of anything but the hideous headache that pounded in his skull, overwhelming everything else. Only gradually did he become aware of other odd sensations, the most noticeable one was the fact that something was stuck in his mouth, forcing air in and out of his body. Respirator, he thought vaguely, remembering the sensation from when he'd woken up after being knocked out by the Golden-laced pizza. Hospital, he thought then. And, he was in a hospital because…? His thoughts were all jumbled, fragments and half-images, frustrating to try to put together. He wasn't in the mood for a puzzle. Too tired.

It was then, as he let the confusion just 'be' for a little while, that he felt the other sensations. Someone was stroking his forehead, over and over, easing away the pounding in his head…it was very soothing, really. Warm and sure, caring and gentle. Made him feel safe. A large, strong hand was wrapped around his own, lightly massaging circles into the back of his hand, just the most delicate contact. In his confusion, he thought for a while that it was his mother, and that he must be sick, but as he came more awake, he noticed there was no singing…his mother always sang or hummed when she was taking care of him. Hands are too big, he realized then. But he didn't worry about it, just let those hands soothe him, protect him.

Protect, he thought again to himself, holding onto that word in the midst of the maelstrom of thoughts and sensations. Protector…

It was then that he became aware of the low rumble of sound, intermittent, very soft. Trying to make it out gave him something to focus on and he leaned toward the sound. Little by little, words separated from the rumble around them and he could catch them, like butterflies in a net…but butterflies shouldn't be in a net, should be free…he frowned. Oh, yeah, he was listening to that low, soft, voice that sounded worried, sounded…sad?

As he came up through the layers of fog and confusion, he started to make out the words, no longer confusing them with butterflies. "…scaring me, kid….wish…wake up…c'mon, Chief…be alright…"

Gradually, he put the pieces together in his mind, like an equation and came up with the answer, and then almost snickered at how easy it had been…he'd made it too complicated. The answer was that Jim was there, taking care of him, watching over him. Who else, man? he thought to himself blearily. Who else would be there with him, making sure he was all right? Only Jim…

He drifted a while longer, but then other memories started to intrude. Being tied in the dark. Scared and helpless. Knowing he was going to die.

And that was the thought that finally jolted him back through the last layer of fog.

"IMMM?" he mumbled around the ventilator as his eyes blinked open, fear written in them as he clutched weakly at the fingers that gripped his own.

"Easy, Chief," Ellison soothed. Seeing the fear, he felt his heart twist, but he carried on with a reassuring tone, "You're okay, Blair…you're going to be just fine."

For a long moment, Sandburg gazed at Jim, letting the rest of the pieces of who and where he was fall into place in his mind. Watching him, Ellison wasn't sure if Sandburg was fully conscious or not, and it scared him to see those wide blue eyes looking right at him, but seeming so vague, so disconnected. "You with me, Chief?" he asked, anxiety sharp in his voice and eyes as his grip around Sandburg's hand tightened.

Whether it was something in his voice, or in his eyes, he didn't know. All he knew was that Blair really came back to him in that moment. The blue eyes focused and really looked at him, then the kid nodded, just a little, but enough to say, yes, he was here. Ellison felt tears burn his eyes, and he had to push back a rude lump that had intruded into his throat. He saw the worry and question form in Sandburg's eyes… worry for him, wonder at the tear that had slipped unheeded down his cheek. "Don't worry," he murmured. "I'm okay…I was just…a little worried about you…you know?"

There were times when Sandburg wondered just who and what he was in Ellison's life. Jim could be so remote and even cold, indifferent. He didn't give up a lot of himself, didn't like to get too close to people, always looking for an excuse to pull back, to move away, move on. But, in that moment, with the love and concern naked in those eyes, with the relief to have him back shining so clearly, Blair knew where he was.

He was home.

He tried to smile around the tube in his mouth, wanted to say something and couldn't. His eyes filled with tears, of gratitude, and frustration at being unable to express it.

"Shh, Chief," Ellison murmured at the sight of the tears, again stroking his friend's forehead gently. "You're okay. Everything's going to be okay…"

Blair blinked back the tears and closed his eyes, letting Jim's touch soothe him, ease away the headache that pounded so fiercely. But, he was bothered by something…there was something he had to do, had to tell Jim. Again, his mind struggled with the memories, sorting out how he'd ended up in the hospital. Timmy. And Santos.

His eyes blinked open again, this time fully alert as he searched Jim's gaze. Damn, he couldn't talk. His eyes skittered around the still darkened room, only a single light burning from the metal lamp over his bed, but it was tilted away so that it wouldn't glare down on him. Pulling weakly, he loosened his hand from Jim's grip and made writing motions on the bed beside him. Damn, he was so weak, he could hardly move, couldn't lift his arms to gesture for what he wanted.

Jim frowned, watching him, trying to understand. He studied the small motions of Blair's hand, knowing his friend was trying to tell him something. The thumb and fingers were curled tip to tip, the hand moving back and forth…but he didn't get it. Only when Blair shifted his fingers, letting his index finger move as if writing on the sheet, did he understand.

"You want something to write with?" Ellison asked, looking back into Blair's eyes. The weak nod confirmed his guess. Patting his pockets, Jim pulled out his small notepad and pen. Gently, he put the pen into Blair's grip, the nib resting on the paper below.

Frowning, Blair concentrated, trying to picture the letters in his mind. His fingers were sluggish, not responding, so that the letters he made sprawled on the paper, shaky and awkward. But, he didn't have to finish the first word, just the 'T' and the 'I', when Jim nodded.

"It must have been Tim who called me…told me where to find you," Ellison told him. "I owe that kid, big time," he added softly.

Blair's eyes softened at the tone and the look on his Sentinel's face. Swallowing, he turned his attention back to the pen and paper. With slow deliberation, he traced out the name Tim had shared with him. 'S', 'A', 'N', 'T', 'O', and finally, his hand shaking, the final 'S'. When he let the pen slip from his fingers, Jim picked it up and slipped the paper out from under Sandburg's trembling hand. Unconsciously patting that hand, to still its quivering as he studied the paper.

"'Santos,' Ellison murmured, then looked up at Blair, who was nodding weakly. There was no 'Santos' in the case so far, which only left the unnamed shadowy figure they'd all been hunting for. "Santos is the one who tried to kill you?" Jim growled. When Blair blinked and nodded again, weakly squeezing his hand, Jim swallowed, feeling fury build in him. At last, a name…at last he knew who had done this to his friend, tying him up, leaving him helpless and conscious to die of asphyxiation. His jaw tight, he reached for his cell, then remembered he couldn't use it around all the hospital machinery. "You okay if I leave you for a minute…I have to call Simon and give him this information. But, first, can you give me anything more? I'm going to give you ranges of description, and you squeeze my hand when I hit the best fit, okay?"

When Blair blinked and nodded again, Jim began, "Okay, age: teenager, early twenties," stopping when he felt the soft clenching of Blair's fingers. "Good, small build, medium build, large build…" he waited, but there was no reaction except Blair's eyebrows lifting, as if waiting for him go on. "Huge?" Jim asked. Again, the squeezing confirmed the description. "Bigger than Simon?" Blair nodded.

"Okay," Jim continued, "Clean-shaven," squeeze, "long hair, short hair," squeeze, "Caucasian, Black, Latin," squeeze. "Any scars or distinguishing marks?"

Blair shook his head.

"Alright, Chief…this is plenty to go on. I'll be right back," Jim assured him, then with a final brush of his friend's forehead, turned and hurried from the room. When he got back, he found that Blair had slipped back to sleep. Standing above him, looking down at his best friend, roommate, partner and Guide, Ellison let some of the tension ease out of his shoulders and back. He'd been so scared, so damned scared, that even if Sandburg woke up, that the kid would have suffered brain damage. Scared for too many hours before finding him that when he did, Sandburg would already be dead.

Ellison knew in his mind that Sandburg was a full-grown man who'd been taking care of himself for years. But, in his heart, Sandburg was just a kid, innocent of the ugliness of the world, still so hopeful and so trusting…so eager to be helpful, to make a difference. So endlessly giving of himself, his time and his affection. Lying there now, his hair a cloud around his head, dark lashes drooping on bruised, pale skin, being helped to breathe because he hadn't been able to breathe on his own, so close to death had he been when they'd brought him in…so vulnerable, it caught at Ellison's heart and made his breath hitch in his chest.

Easing back down into the chair by the bed, he reached out to stroke Sandburg's face with his fingertips, and found himself murmuring quietly to the man asleep in the bed. "You scared me, Chief…when you ran down the alley like that…when I couldn't find you. I…I searched all those back lanes, and it took hours…I was so afraid…afraid I'd be too late. Don't…please don't scare me like that, okay? Next time, stay behind me, so I know you're safe. I…damn it, Sandburg," he hesitated, as his voice, too tight, cracked. "I'd miss you, kid…more than you know. More than I…more than I ever want to really find out."
********************
Blair was still sleeping when Simon stopped in briefly, just after dawn, to let Jim know that they'd picked up Santos, a local gang member, moonlighting it seemed as an assassin on the side. Though the surly giant hadn't admitted to anything, yet, he'd been told that Blair had survived, and could identify him. They'd left him in a cell to think about that, and about whether he wanted to face the pending murder charges alone. Simon was going to send pictures down for Sandburg to look at later, to see if he could pick Santos out. If so, they'd turn on the pressure in the interrogation room. The guy was a bully and a punk… Simon didn't think it would take much to crack the story out of him.

"You plan on going home to get some sleep anytime soon, Jim?" Simon asked then, concerned about the dark shadows under his detective's eyes, the lines of weariness and strain.

"Yeah, later…once he wakes up again, and I know he's breathing on his own," Ellison replied, rubbing the back of his stiff neck.

"'Tough guy, Ellison'," Simon mused, a smile playing over his lips. "Found out you're not so tough, after all, didn't you?"

Jim rolled his eyes, looked away and shrugged.

Chuckling, Banks patted him on the shoulder as he turned to go, pausing for a moment to gaze down at Sandburg. "Well, don't feel bad about it…the kid has a knack for getting under other people's skin."

Ellison snorted softly at that, then remembered the other thing he wanted to know, that he knew Blair would want to know. "Anyone tracked down the kid, yet? Tim Wiseman?"

"Not yet. That kid seems to know how to hide, but he'll turn up," Simon said, then took his leave.

About an hour later, Sandburg stirred again, shifting on the bed, and blinking as he woke up.

"Hey, there, Chief…you ready to join the rest of us?" Ellison called out, squeezing his friend's shoulder gently.

"Mmmm," Blair muttered around the respirator's tube. Frowning at the discomfort and irritation of it.

"Easy," Ellison murmured, pushing the call-button pinned to the bed. "They said when you woke up, they'd try it without the tube. Just relax, someone will be here in a minute to take it out."

Sandburg nodded, his gaze lifting to look around the room.

"You're in Cascade General, Chief," Jim told him. "Simon was in a while ago to tell me they picked up Santos. They're sending pictures to see if you can identify him a little later."

Blair swallowed and nodded. He still had a wicked headache, but he felt stronger than before. He couldn't remember when he'd awakened earlier, just had vague memories of it, but he did remember he'd hardly been able to move.

A few minutes later, medical personnel arrived to take blood samples and remove the respirator. Sandburg gagged and retched as it was pulled in one smooth flow from his throat, gasping in great, deep breaths and coughing harshly, but the reaction finally settled and he sank back on the pillows, feeling like a dishrag.

They let Jim return a few minutes later, once they'd freshened the bed linen and given Sandburg ice chips to suck on to ease his raw throat. The nurse promised that he could have a shower later, once they moved him to a regular room.

"Looking better, Chief," Ellison said cheerfully as he returned, glad to see the ugly tubing was gone…even gladder to know that Sandburg was able to breathe on his own again.

"Thanks," Sandburg croaked, then swallowed painfully. "Hurts," he grumbled.

"Yeah, I'll bet it does," Jim commiserated, moving to spoon up more ice for him. "So…you're all awake? Feeling better?" he asked, the picture of concern.

Blair nodded, "Yeah…thanks." Then frowned. "How's Tim?" he croaked out.

"Sorry, Chief, we haven't found him yet," Jim replied, then continued, "But, we'll keep looking."

"Good," Blair mumbled, wincing a little.

"You sure you're all right?" Ellison demanded.

"Uh huh," Blair replied, saving his voice, as he nodded and attempted a wan smile.

Nodding, Jim's expression changed from gentle concern to irritation, as he growled, "Good, then maybe we can review your performance out there last night. You broke a major rule, Chief."

Blair squinted at him, as he muttered, confused, "Rule?"

"Rule #2, to be exact," Ellison nodded.

Blair's eyebrows twitched as he tried to remember the rules. "Umm…no eating anywhere…but the kitchen?" he asked hopefully, wondering what that had to do with anything.

Grimacing, Jim shook his head. "Not the house rules, dummy. The rules for working undercover."

"Ohh…those rules," Blair murmured, frowning as he tried to remember Rule #2. "Don't tell anyone I'm working with the police?" he offered hopefully, his voice hoarse.

"No wonder you screw up if you can't remember the rules," Jim muttered. "No…don't run down any dark alleys unless you know I'm right behind you…"

Nodding, Blair finished with the trace of a grin, "Oh, yeah…and the corollary: better still, stay behind you."

"Where you're safe," Ellison completed, trying hard to maintain the stern scowl on his face.

Smiling brightly then, Sandburg turned his hand to grip his friend's fingers. "I'm sorry…but I heard Timmy scream…."

"And you just had to run off and rescue him," Ellison supplied with a sigh. "Yeah, I know…you saved the kid's life, but I could wish you hadn't ended up in a hospital because of it."

"Well…at least I didn't get pneumonia," Blair teased, irrepressible as ever.

"One small mercy," Ellison replied grudgingly, but a grin played around his lips.

His words though brought back another fragment of memory, and Blair frowned a little as he reached for it. "He was there, Jim…after Tim left me," he murmured.

"He? You mean Santos came back?" Jim demanded, again feeling the clench of anger in his gut.

"No," Blair replied softly, his gaze seeking his friend's. "Gabe…I heard Gabe's voice…"

Ellison's throat tightened as his breath caught in his throat. He didn't understand this stuff, wasn't comfortable with the mystical and didn't really know what he thought about that strange indigent that had played such an important role down at the station weeks ago, and then who had disappeared. But, he had heard the self-proclaimed archangel's voice last night, when Blair had, on the street…and he wondered.

"I don't pretend to understand, Chief…but, uh, I'm glad if you weren't alone…" Jim murmured, thinking again of how close it had been. Had Gabe been there to take Sandburg…or just to bring him comfort? Too close…too damned close.
********************
Blair was able to leave the hospital the next day, and when he heard Santos was still refusing to cooperate, insisted on first going to the station to pick Santos out of the line up. After that, the big man caved, unwilling to go down alone. The sorry story came out, of how two shopkeepers, who didn't think about the homeless as real people, had pooled their resources to 'clean up the streets'. When they were arrested later in the day, they still didn't seem to know what they had done that was so wrong.

"They're useless…garbage, better off dead…it was a mercy!" Marco blurted out, daring to be indignant.

"They were people, people with their own history and hopes, people with friends, people who feel just like you and I do," Jim had snapped, disgusted. "If you'd ever done more that just yell at them, glare at them or pay to have them killed, you might have realized that."
********************
The next day, Ellison and Sandburg went to the ceremony in Mount Moriah Cemetery for Joseph Wiseman. Blair was startled at the name, not ever having heard Old Joe's last name before. There was quite a crowd present to mourn the passing of someone who had lived so simply, who most would have thought of as having been alone in this life. Word had gone out on the streets of when the short service at the graveside was to be, and there were shopkeepers, Misty and her aunt among them, and the owner of a restaurant, Jeff, shelter and food kitchen workers, Sean and Josie, two cops who worked that beat on Hastings, and a crowd of homeless people who'd cared about Old Joe. Blair was surprised, and touched, to see that his five students had also come. Annie was there, and hovering close to her, Timmy, who kept a wary eye on the cops.

Spotting him, Blair made his way through the small crowd to kneel down beside the lad. "Hey, Tim…thanks, man. You saved my life," Sandburg said quietly. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," the kid said, aloof for a moment, as was his wont. But, then, he shifted his gaze to Sandburg's as he continued, "Why'd you come after me when Santos grabbed me? Why'd you care?"

Blair looked away, shrugged a little, then looked back. "I like you, Tim…I didn't want anyone to hurt you. Truth is, I worry about you, man. I wish…I wish you'd let people help you."

Young Tim swallowed as he looked toward the grave. "He helped me…Old Joe. Always checked up on me…made sure I had enough food, and a place to sleep, after my Mom…after she went away. Told me stories…made sure I could read…add numbers and stuff."

"Is that why you took his last name?" Blair asked softly.

Tim sniffed, as he murmured, "Yeah, I guess. He used to call me 'son'." Truthfully, Tim felt completely lost, utterly bereft without Old Joe. He didn't know where he'd live now, who he'd go to if he ever really needed anyone…and was really scared of being completely alone.

The tears came then, and Blair gently pulled the boy into his arms. "He really loved you, Timmy. He'd want to know you're safe."

The unwilling tears subsided, and Tim sniffed again. "You saved my life, Blair," he murmured, holding onto the man who'd appeared so suddenly in the streets a few short weeks ago. "He said, he said you would help me…and that I should follow you…until I knew everything was okay…I didn't know what he meant, until Santos…"

"Who said that?" Blair asked, frowning in confusion. "Old Joe?"

"No, that weird guy who hung out with Joe…that Gabe, who tells everybody he's an angel or something," Tim explained, rubbing the embarrassing tears from his eyes. "Earlier that day…after he told me that Joe…that Joe was gone…to Heaven, he said," Tim said, shaking his head, rolling his eyes. "Anyway," he continued, sniffing, "Gabe said I should watch for you…that I should do what you told me to do."

Blair felt his own eyes mist then, and he had to blink rapidly. "Well, old Gabe was sure right about everything he said, wasn't he? Helped us both out, I guess," he said quietly, stroking the child's matted hair. "Tim…do you trust me?" he asked then, hesitantly.

The boy looked away, licked his lips, thought about it. Finally, scrubbing at his cheek, he nodded as he looked back into Blair's eyes. "Yeah," he whispered.

"Will you let me help you? Trust me to make sure you're all right…taken good care of?" Blair asked then.

Heaving out a long sigh, the boy replied, "You're going to tell me to go live in a home, with strangers."

"Strangers are only friends we haven't met yet, Tim," Blair replied with a soft smile. "We were strangers a month ago."

Thinking about that, the kid nodded and blew out another breath. "Will you…will you go with me when…when I meet the people…? Will you…will you visit me, sometimes?" Tim asked in a small voice.

"Absolutely," Blair replied, pulling the child into a tight hug. "Tim, my friend, you saved my life…you really did, you know. I will always make sure you're okay…always be there for you when you need me. I promise."

Jim had stood a little to the side, listening, nodding to himself. When he noticed Annie was crying, he moved closer to put an arm around her thin shoulders, holding her when she turned in against his chest.

When the service was over, they walked slowly along the path, past the leafless trees and the brown rolling hills of the cemetery, dreary now in its winter garb. But, the sky was clear, and the sun had shone for Old Joe, bringing an unusual warm to bathe his final resting place. Blair held Tim's hand, while Annie paced along beside Jim.

At one point, Blair looked up and back toward Joe's grave…and stopped in his tracks.

"Gabe…" he murmured.

The gawky, gangly, man with the thin, wild red hair looked up and met his eyes, smiling, his face alight with grace and love. Waving, Gabe stood a moment more, then turned to walk in the other direction… disappearing around the tall marble statue of a magnificent angel…

Blair's eyes sought Jim's as he whispered, "Did you see him?"

"Yeah, Chief, I did," Ellison replied as he laid a hand on his friend's shoulder.

"You mean Gabe?" Annie asked, a little confused.

"He's always around somewhere," Tim said matter-of-factly, not particularly surprised to have seen Gabe lingering by Old Joe's grave. "He's a weird old guy…but nice, I guess."

"Yeah," Blair sighed, thinking about what Timmy had just said. He's always around somewhere.

His eyes rising to the statue, recognizing the traditional representation of the face and the pose, Blair smiled softly as he whispered, "Thanks, man… for making miracles seem like accidents… for being around…"
********************
On Christmas Day, Jim and Blair went around to see Tim, bringing gifts for the whole family. The kid was still uncertain in his new home, wary of the people who seemed so nice, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But, he was relaxing, gradually, learning to trust. When Blair showed up, as he'd promised he would, that shift toward trust strengthened a little more. When the woman who was his new 'mom', sort of, handed him the gift she'd helped him pick out for Blair, wrapping it for him all pretty, with ribbons, had paid for, come to that, he felt good that she'd helped him give something to his friend. It was just a small thing… just a silly little pewter angel, nothing expensive or anything. But, when he saw the look at his friend's face, Tim knew he'd picked out the right thing.

In turn, he opened the gift Blair had brought for him, holding it quietly in his hands for a moment when he'd pulled it from the box and the crackly, white paper it had been rolled in. It was a small carving, of a thin, old, black man, with a funny hat, and a coat too big. The face held a gentle smile, and eyes that seemed to see right through him, shining with an expression of kindness and understanding.

"Old Joe," he whispered, his lips trembling. Sniffing, he finally managed to look up at Blair. "Thanks," he said, his voice thick with suppressed tears. "Thanks."

Later, Jim and Blair went to help serve the Christmas meal at the shelter, working alongside Josie and Sean. Blair was touched to see Angela and Melissa, Mike and Chuck and D.J. were also there.

Christmas caroles played softly in the background as they talked and laughed with their friends, these people who had been strangers only a few short weeks ago, nameless, almost invisible souls, drifting on the streets, but who were now people they recognized, knew something about…cared about.

"So, Chief, did your class project reveal all that you hoped it would? Have you sorted out the reasons that our society has gotten so caught up in commercialism and 'stuff'?" Ellison asked as they left, one hand resting on Blair's shoulder as they ambled down the street.

Blair looked up at his friend, sniffing in the cold, but enjoying the soft brush of light flakes of snow on his cheeks. Shaking his head, he replied, "No…not really." But, slipping his arm around his friend's waist, leaning into Jim a bit when his friend's moved to circle his shoulders, he added quietly, "But…I did find the heart of Christmas…I did find the love."

Finis

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