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.

Through A Glass Darkly

by Arianna

Story Consultant and Editor: Susan (aka Brill)

Note: Well, like so many others, I have to take my stab at The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg, particularly at what came after…so, here it is. Hope you enjoy it!

Dedications: To Ceryndip, for introducing me to these wonderful characters and ensuring I got the chance to know them so well; to Susan, for your wonderful and insightful commentary…not to mention, your keen editor's eye! And, Starfox, thanks for hosting my stories on your marvelous site.

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

Chapter One: If I Give Away All I Have…

Amazement gave way to stunned disbelief when Jim grabbed him in a headlock and started rubbing his hair vigorously, saying something about making a 'Blairskin rug'. It was meant in fun, born of affection, and Blair knew it…but it was too much. He felt something deep inside rebel and crack against this last barrage of emotional overload and he fought with real vigor to free himself, embarrassed when he ended up pushing Jim off-balance, and had to grab his friend quickly before Ellison's bad leg gave out and he ended up on his ass. For a moment, there was only silence in the squad room and Blair wondered if he'd actually shouted, "Get off me!" out loud. The bright smile on Jim's face faltered as he stared at his young friend, unable to keep up with the hectic mixture of emotions that skittered across Sandburg's face.

"Hey, Chief…I was just kidding around…" the Detective stammered, as he stood perfectly still in Blair's grip, not wanting to shake off the hand that clenched his arm so tightly. But, Blair's hand fell away of its own accord as the younger man stood back a step.

"I know, Jim…it's okay…it's just…I don't know what to say," Blair murmured, too overwhelmed with all that had happened to get his thoughts into anything resembling coherence. Suddenly aware of the silence, he looked up and around at all the faces of the friends who'd come to him with such gleeful satisfaction at being able to offer him a permanent entry to their ranks. And at his mother, who now looked uncertain and confused. Swallowing, he tried to reconcile a lifetime of his mother's jibes against 'pigs' and her pithily and frequently expressed ideas about people who carried guns and resolved problems with violence with her apparent joyful acceptance this afternoon that he was to be offered the opportunity to become a police officer for real. It didn't wash, a voice inside screamed at him…she'd hate this. She was here because she felt guilty about what had happened, blaming herself for having destroyed all he'd ever dreamed of being in his life. She was trying to be happy about it because she'd hoped it would make him happy.

And, Simon, who was frowning at him now, not in anger, but thoughtfully…Joel, who looked sad all of a sudden, with that expression that said he wished he could think of something, anything, to say that would help make everything all right. Megan cocked her head as she studied him, while Rafe and H. couldn't seem to meet his eyes. Rhonda had turned away, to busy herself with some files as if everything was fine, but her hands were trembling, and she was blinking as if she was trying hard not to cry.

When he saw Blair lift a hand as if trying to stave off the world, knowing that he couldn't, Simon felt a stab of shame that they had burst in on him like this, without affording him the respect of being able to consider in private whether being a cop was what he really wanted to do with his life. "Sandburg," Simon said with a carefully neutral tone to break the silence, "I know we've caught you off-guard. We just wanted you to know that we want to keep you on the team. But…if you need time to think about it…well, you're entitled, son. It's your life."

Taking a deep breath, swallowing hard, Blair replied, "Thanks, Simon…you just caught me like totally off-guard, man, that's all. I never expected anything like this. I…" he shook his head, "I don't know how you ever got anybody to agree to even consider letting me into the Academy…not after…well…" Blair's voice faded as he gathered his thoughts. Cutting Jim a quick look, feeling bad about the confusion he saw there, Blair gave himself a mental shake. Wasn't this why he'd done what he'd done? To protect Jim…to safeguard what they had? The friendship at least, since he'd never held out any hope that the Police Department would allow him to continue as Jim's unofficial partner…and now they were giving him a chance to make it official, a chance to rescue something, the most important thing, their partnership, from the ashes of his life.

Straightening his shoulders, trying to smile with some degree of enthusiasm, Blair shook his head as he continued, "I don't need to think about it, Simon. This is an incredible opportunity, really awesome, man, and I'm truly grateful. I'd have to be a fool not to accept." Holding up his hands, with a broad grin at Jim and then at H., he chirped, "No comments on that from the peanut gallery!"

It was working. They had all relaxed again and were starting to smile back at him, if a bit tentatively.

"You're sure?" Simon pressed, his piercing gaze trying to read Blair's heart and soul since he'd long ago learned not to simply trust the face the young man showed the world.

Nodding, Blair said seriously, "I'm sure. Thank you, Simon, for giving me this chance…and…and all of you, for wanting to keep me around."

"Well, then, let's go somewhere to celebrate!" H. called out. "Hairboy is here to stay!"

The suggestion was loudly acclaimed by the others, but Blair just grinned deprecatingly as he said quietly, "Maybe we should wait until I actually graduate…."

Simon nodded as if he'd just said something profound and very wise. "Blair's right, people…time enough to celebrate with a big graduation bash," he agreed. Sighing, to give weight to Blair's wishes, he added, "To be honest, I have to admit I'm a little tired anyway…and Megan, you still look like you could use more time to recover. So, let's postpone the party." Pausing, Simon leaned forward in the wheelchair, his hand out toward Blair. Suddenly self-conscious, Sandburg stepped forward to grasp it, having to blink hard when Simon said quietly, "You're a fine detective, Sandburg, and an even better man. This will just give you the credentials to allow you to do what you've already been doing so well for a long time now. It will be a pleasure to serve with you when you graduate and come back to us."

Blair felt Jim's hand on his shoulder, squeezing a little to add his own silent agreement to those heartfelt words. Sandburg wanted to say something to express how deeply Simon's words had touched him, but he couldn't seem to swallow past the huge lump that had risen in his throat. He held the captain's firm grip tightly for a long moment as he struggled for composure, not realizing that all that he felt was blazing from his tear-dampened eyes. Simon pressed back, nodding, having to blink himself, feeling pressure in his own chest and throat at the naked gratitude that was so immense it was almost painful to look at. The kid gave so much and never did seem to understand how special he was…was always so damned surprised when anyone noticed and acknowledged him, or heaven forbid, actually praised him.

Sniffing, Blair finally managed to murmur, "It will be a privilege to be on your team, Simon, for real, I mean."

His lips twisting into a sardonic smile as he let Blair's hand go and sat back, the captain said sternly, "You have always been a member of this team, and don't you forget it." But, then he relented with a nod, "But, I know what you mean." Turning to the others, he barked with feigned gruffness, "And now, it's time for everyone to get back to work! Let's go, people…we'll celebrate another time."

With mock grumbles, the impromptu gathering broke up, each detective first moving to clap Blair on the shoulder and add their own muttered but equally sincere words of welcome to their fraternity. Joel stood back, moving forward only when Simon, Megan, Rafe and H. had drifted away. "You okay, Blair?" he asked softly, his eyes warm with concern as he laid a hand on Sandburg's arm.

"I'll be fine, Joel, thanks," Blair replied, his eyes skittering away as he avoided a direct answer. 'Okay'? No, not by a long shot…but, he would be, given time.

Not missing the slight obfuscation, Joel just nodded with understanding. "You ever need to talk…you know where to find me, all right?" he offered, his voice gentle, sincere. Everyone, including Blair, knew he had a soft spot for this kid and would do just about anything for him. He couldn't help the paternal feelings he felt, or the way those feelings opened him up to share the pain as well as the joys of this bright young man's life. When he'd watched that terrible news conference, and saw the pain of overwhelming sorrow on Blair's face, he had thought he might weep for the grief of it. Joel didn't begin to understand everything that went on between Ellison and Sandburg, or what the whole truth of this Sentinel business was, but one thing he did know. Sandburg had crucified himself publicly on national television to protect a friend…the only lies he'd told were in front of that damned camera and the soulless crowd at the university. Joel couldn't imagine the courage that had taken. But, he knew the pain of losing something you've loved with your whole being, knew that look on a man's face…and he'd seen that look on Sandburg's face during his short statement. He was throwing away everything he'd ever thought he'd be, his life's work, his identity in so many ways, the joy he'd found in teaching, destroying his own reputation for credibility and integrity…throwing it away with grace and nobility to protect Jim Ellison. It nearly killed Joel to know the kid was suffering a loss of that magnitude and had no one to fight back for him.

Joel knew it was some kind of conspiracy to protect Ellison and the department, but he had to wonder if it was worth the sacrifice Blair had made. Why was one man's life, career, worth more than another's? Why was it always Sandburg who had to do the giving in their odd friendship? Simon had tried to make it as right as he could…but…had they all forgotten how uncomfortable the kid was about ever using a gun? Hell, Sandburg didn't even like to look at guns, let alone hold or fire one. Could he do it? Could he compromise himself that much? At what cost to his soul? Damn, Joel thought miserably as he gazed into Sandburg's too bright eyes. Damn it all to hell.

Blair could read some of the older man's thoughts in his expressive eyes and he was again deeply touched by the understanding and concern there…and the unconditional acceptance. Simon and Megan knew the truth, but Joel and the others were taking him on faith. More faith and trust than anyone at the university had shown in him, he thought ruefully, despite all his years of work there. Sighing, he just shook his head and opened his arms, moving to hug Joel tightly. "Thanks, man," he murmured. "If I need to talk, you'll be the first one I call."

Joel hugged him back silently, then turned, having to brush at his own eyes as he nodded and moved away.

Which left Jim…and Naomi, who was standing awkwardly a few steps away, uncertain as she'd rarely been in her life of what to do or say. Blair gave her one of those quizzical looks that said, 'You can fool some of the people, maybe even all of these people…but you can't fool me,' as he went to her and hugged her tightly.

"Oh, Blair, I just want you to be happy," she whispered, her voice cracking a little with emotion. "I love you and I'm proud of you…I just want you to be happy."

"I know," he murmured in reply, then kissed her gently on the forehead. "Thank you…and, hey, don't worry. Like I told you back in the loft, everything has a way of working out the way it should. Have a little faith…"

"I've always had, and always will have, faith in you, my beautiful, wonderful son," she said quietly, reaching up to brush his hair back from his eyes as she tilted her head, studying him thoughtfully. "Just be true to yourself, all right? No matter what? Do what you want to do…and then be happy doing it."

Smiling, he hugged her again. "I will, I promise," he replied. Still holding her, he turned back to his roommate. "Well, Simon and Megan aren't the only ones who could still use some rest. You're looking a little peaked, my friend, and we should get you home."

Giving him a crooked grin in response, Jim said, "Sounds like a good idea, Chief." Stiffly, leaning heavily on his cane, the detective led the way to the elevators. Ellison had been shocked by the violence with which Sandburg had fought loose earlier, and the vehemence in his voice, the almost desperate tone, as Blair had ordered him to let go. Made thoughtful by Sandburg's reaction, he'd held his breath for a long moment after Simon had offered Blair time to think about the offer of a place at the Academy, scared to realize that such time might actually be needed. Blair's response had relieved him, but there were undertones here that left him uncomfortable. It had seemed like such a perfect solution. He'd been so certain that Blair would jump at the idea of going to the Academy. But, maybe they'd made too many assumptions…maybe they should have asked him what he wanted to do before bursting in and blowing him away with their own giddy joy to think he wouldn't be going anywhere, that he'd still be with them all.

Face it, Ellison, Jim castigated himself with no mercy, you were just so damned glad to think you were going to keep the only partner you'd ever want that it never occurred to you to even consider what Blair might want to do with his life. Good work, Detective. Do you think you can screw up anything else today?

Jim was also deeply bothered by Blair's comment to Joel that he'd overheard…that Sandburg would go to Joel 'first' if he needed to talk. What was that about? Why would he go to Joel? I'm his friend, room-mate, partner…what would he say to Joel that he couldn't tell me first? Jim wondered, but he didn't like where those thoughts took him. Maybe because I just keep letting him down…

Sighing, Ellison punched the button to call the elevator, conscious of Blair and Naomi standing just behind him. Distracted by his own bleak thoughts, he now realized he'd missed some of their conversation. Naomi was saying something about leaving…that she'd packed after Blair had left that morning and had a flight out in a couple of hours. He could tell from Blair's voice in response that he was surprised, but Jim couldn't tell if the tone signaled sorrow or relief, or maybe a little of both.

"Mom, we haven't had time for much of a visit…" Blair offered, trying to dissuade her from leaving so abruptly.

"No, I know," she replied quietly, not meeting her son's eyes. "But, well, I feel it's time to go…"

"I hear you," Sandburg replied, their code for 'I don't agree, but I can understand and accept your feelings'.

The elevator door finally opened and they moved into it. For all that he wanted to encourage Naomi to stay for Blair's sake, Ellison couldn't force the words into his mouth. The simple truth of the matter was that he was glad she was going. Much as he'd come to like Naomi, even understand her to some extent, he couldn't deny his own anger toward her now. Maybe she had only intended to help her son, but her actions had almost torn them apart and had led to the ruin of Blair's career as an anthropologist. Swallowing, Ellison gazed at the floor as he struggled with his conflicting feelings about this complex woman. For all her sweetness and good intentions, Naomi seemed incapable of seeing the world through another's eyes, only able to see what she wanted to see, only able to do what she wanted to do. Blithely assuming it would all work out just fine. If she thought about it at all, which Ellison doubted. She wasn't selfish exactly, nor stupid…but she really didn't have a trace of empathy in her being. Not for the first time, Jim wondered how Blair had become the person he was.

They all went home together in Blair's car, since Jim couldn't drive yet with his leg so stiff and sore, and he and Naomi had come to the station in a cab. She kept up an inane chatter all the way…on and on about where she was going next, some place in Peru to visit some ruins. "Such energy there, you can just feel it…so healing and restoring," she gushed, happily forgetful of Jim and Blair's experiences there as she urged that they "should go there some time…it's so beautiful." For once, Blair didn't correct her or remind her that that's where Jim had spent some really terrible months of his life, months that had forced his Sentinel abilities out of dormancy, or where they'd faced murderous drug manufacturers to save Simon and his son, Daryl. Blair understood that she was just talking out of nervousness, not really thinking, and he let her run on, nodding and making soothing sounds while Jim stared silently out of the window, just wishing they were home.

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

Jim closed the door to the loft with a relieved sigh. She was gone. Blair had insisted upon driving her to the airport, so now here he was, alone in a too quiet loft. Limping over to the sofa, he picked up the remote and idly clicked through the stations, but turned the television off when he realized he wasn't paying any attention to it. Leaning back on the cushions, he absently rubbed at his aching leg, then shifted so that his head was supported, closing his eyes as he sprawled there and sighed again, this time heavily.

So much had happened, so fast, he hadn't had time, really, to think about it all. Zeller had kept coming at them, almost killing Simon and Megan, and then shooting up the station…miraculously without killing anyone, but several people were still in the hospital. At least the bastard was dead, and by his own hand, stupidly shooting up the rope that had held him suspended above the alley in his insane effort to kill them. Served him right and he could rot in hell so far as Ellison was concerned.

Grimacing, rubbing a hand over his head and down to massage his neck, Jim realized he was only thinking about Zeller so that he could avoid thinking about what had happened because of Sandburg's paper. Unconsciously rubbing his hand over his mouth, he wished he could take back the hard words he'd used when he'd as much as accused Blair of having manipulated the situation and the resulting publicity to hike up the value of the book. He winced at the memory, knowing how wrong he'd been, knowing he'd known he was wrong at the time and had only been striking out because he was hurt and scared. Not just about the havoc it would all mean in his own life, but because it could well mean that he'd lose Blair…hell, with millions and a Nobel Prize, why would the kid keep hanging around Cascade? Just like always…when in doubt, take it out on Sandburg. Drive him away before he could leave of his own volition… because driving him away meant Ellison was still in control. What a laugh…like he'd ever been 'in control' as far as Sandburg was concerned.

His actions had been inexcusable…the way he'd consciously and deliberately given Sandburg the cold shoulder, acting like he couldn't stand to be near the kid, abiding his presence in the loft, and Naomi's, on sufferance with cold civility, once again claiming by word and action that irreparable damage had been done to the trust between them, to their friendship. "God, I'm a jerk sometimes," Ellison muttered to himself, wondering with a feeling akin to awe why Sandburg put up with him…stuck by him.

Especially at such a terrible cost.

Jim felt nausea roil in his gut as he again remembered watching that news briefing, watching Blair destroy himself and everything he'd ever dreamed of, for him. To protect him. To save their friendship. "Dammit," he muttered. It wasn't right. He shouldn't have accepted the gesture, however nobly and unselfishly it had been made. He should have set the record straight right away and let the pieces of his own world fall where they might. Sighing again, he leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, head in his hands, sickened by the realization that he wasn't that strong. Oh, sure, there were other considerations. Cases that might be thrown out, bad guys who might go free as a result, and Simon's own career could have been blown to smithereens if his complicity in it all had come out…but Ellison knew all that could be handled. They hadn't compromised any evidence, or the rights of any of their suspects, always taking great care to ensure that what he gathered would hold up in court…so he used his senses to find some of it, so what? Evidence was evidence. And Simon could probably fend off any criticism by rightfully claiming to have been protecting the privacy of one of his people.

Jim shook his head. Images of the media feeding frenzy over the past few days merged in his mind with the craziness of what had happened after he'd returned so exhausted from Peru, heralded as some kind of hero, knowing he was only a survivor…the only survivor, still grieving and feeling guilty about comrades he couldn't save. Cameras with their piercing bright lights in his face, microphones shoved under his nose, questions, endless questions, that he couldn't answer. Knowing that something very odd had happened to his senses in the jungle, something that he couldn't explain or control and which, frankly had frightened him very badly, had left him tongue-tied and overwhelmed. He'd just wanted so badly for it all to end and to be left in peace. The experiences of the last few days only showed too clearly that it would happen all over again, only this time it would be worse…he'd be seen as some kind of freak.

He just could not bear that, could not face that alone, not when Sandburg upped and left, as he would have inevitably done, to a life of fame and glory.

He knew it.

And he hated himself for it.

The shrill ring of the phone cut into his dismal thoughts, causing his head to jerk up as he lumbered off the sofa and hobbled his way across the room.

"Hello," he responded, rubbing his eyes.

"Jimmy?" his father's voice came, a little tentative, uncertain. "I was wondering how you're doing…."

"Hi, Dad," Ellison replied, hitching one of the kitchen chairs over so that he could sit while they talked. "I'm okay…leg's a bit stiff, but it'll be fine. Blair's just taken his mother to the airport…"

"Ah…" his father replied awkwardly. "Yes, well, Naomi always seems to be on her way somewhere, at least from the little you've told me about her."

"Yeah, that's true enough," Jim replied, wishing he could think of something to say to fill the sudden silence between them.

But, his father rallied, asking, "How's Blair? I mean…well, I saw the press conference…"

Ellison paused, wondering how to answer. Finally, he sighed, "I don't know, to tell you the truth. We haven't had any time to talk about it."

"It's not right, Jimmy," his father interjected, his voice strong now and surprisingly gruff. "From what I can piece together from all this, Blair had nothing to do with that paper being released. He hadn't submitted it for his dissertation, and whether he intended to or not, that isn't the point. The university had no right to expel him the way they did. I read some self-righteous statement in the paper that they'd 'terminated' their association with him because 'his behaviour and the fraud he'd perpetrated' made his continued presence 'untenable'. Made me want to punch somebody."

Jim smiled briefly despite himself at his father's vehement defence of his friend. William Ellison hadn't always been one of Sandburg's fans, but they'd gotten to know one another a little better after his father had been almost killed and Sandburg's charm had worked its usual magic. And, he realized then, his father was one of the very few people in the world who actually knew the truth behind Blair's claim of being a fraud, knew Blair had sacrificed himself to protect his son. Jim frowned as he thought about his father's words and he had to agree that the university might have acted precipitously. "You're right," he said then. "But, I'm not sure what can be done about it."

"I'm not sure, either…but, you know, Jimmy, I think I might have a chat with my contacts on the university's Board of Trustees, maybe have one of my lawyers take a look at the situation," Ellison Sr. offered, then hesitated again, "Unless you think it's none of my business…."

"Uh, no, Dad, I think that's a good idea," Jim replied, wishing he'd thought of it himself. "Can't hurt to see if something can be salvaged from this mess…he should have the right to get his Ph.D. Blair…well," he continued quietly, "Blair has the chance to enter the Police Academy in a couple of weeks, but to be honest, I'm not sure if that's really what he wants."

"Blair…a police officer?" the elder Ellison exclaimed, astonished. William Ellison could not, for the life of him, reconcile the free-spirited, thoughtful and sensitive man he knew Blair Sandburg to be with the image he held of the police. But, suddenly aware of the silence on the other end of the line, understanding what being a 'cop' meant to his son and how much Jim would want Blair to be his partner officially, he continued quickly if still uncertainly, "Not that he wouldn't make a great cop, but I never would have pictured him in a uniform…with a gun."

"No…I know what you mean," Jim replied thoughtfully. He picked up the sound of Blair's steps out in the hall at that moment, saying hurriedly, "Look, Dad, Blair's just gotten home. Let me know how your enquiries go, okay?"

"You got it, Jimmy…and give Blair my regards," Ellison replied as he terminated the call.

Jim was just hanging up when the door opened and Blair eased into the apartment. With a sharp ache, Ellison couldn't help but see how totally wasted the kid looked, his face pale and drawn with exhaustion, his shoulders slumped, moving as if he was almost too weary to put one foot in front of the other. Looking up, Blair caught the concern in Jim's eyes and shrugged self-consciously as he pulled off his jacket and hung it carefully on the hook.

"Dad just called…said to say 'hello'," Jim said as he limped back toward the sofa.

"Oh yeah?" Sandburg replied with the shadow of a smile. "How's he doing?"

"He's…well, he's angry about how the university treated you," Jim replied as he sank down on the sofa, his eyes on Blair's face.

"Oh," Sandburg replied, startled, then embarrassed. "Well, they didn't really have much choice…I mean, I admitted on television for all the world to see that I'm a fraud…"

"Don't say that!" Ellison snapped, unable to bear it. "Don't ever say that, not to me."

Blair's eyes narrowed at the outburst, then his head dropped as he shook it briefly before looking back up. Moving into the living area, he sat down on the other sofa as he said quietly, "Hey…it's alright, man. I knew what I was doing…"

"It's not alright," Jim replied, frustration with it all clear in his voice and his expression. For a moment, he wondered whether to share his father's idea that maybe something could be done, then decided to keep the information to himself. Sandburg would just decline the help, whether he wanted it or not, believing that his troubles were all his own and shouldn't be a worry to anyone else. Besides, he'd hate to get the kid's hopes up only to have them shattered. Looking away, he murmured, "Chief, what you did was…well, there aren't the words, not ones I know anyway, to tell you what it meant to me…I'm sorry. I never expected, never wanted you to lose it all."

"I didn't 'lose it all', Jim," Blair replied huskily, his throat suddenly tight. "I did what was right…what was necessary, and I'd do it again." Sighing, he sank back against the cushions, staring up at the ceiling before he closed his eyes. He was way too tired to have this conversation right now…wasn't sure he ever wanted to have it. It was done. Now he had to pick up the pieces of his life and get on with living.

"You don't really want to be a cop, do you, Chief?" Jim asked softly, staring out the patio doors into the darkness, dreading the response.

"Hmm?" Blair murmured, then rubbed his temples. The damned headache wouldn't seem to go away. It had been days now, and it just wouldn't quit. Pushing himself up straighter, he bit his lip before he answered, wanting to get it right. "To be honest? I don't know, man. I mean…I never even considered that option before today. And…well, it scares me, if you want to know the truth. But, I do know that I want to be your partner…and since the PD lifted my observer pass right after the press conference, this seems like the only way to…to do what I want to do."

"Scares you? Why would it scare you? God, Chief, I've already told you you're the best cop I know, that I've ever known. This would just make it official," Jim exclaimed, turning back to face his friend, and was immediately caught by the stark look on Blair's face.

Sandburg closed his eyes and turned his head away, only too aware that Jim didn't get it, never had… couldn't credit that a career in academia could possibly rank with something as immediate and vital as law enforcement. In Jim's mind it was all so simple now, and even preferable. There was no way to explain how much it hurt to lose everything he'd ever dreamed of without burdening Jim with the pain of that loss.

"It's about having to carry a gun, isn't it?" Jim asked, certain that this was the real problem.

"It's not carrying the gun that bothers me, man…it's knowing that someday I'll have to use it that gives me the shakes," Blair clarified, shaking his head with weary resignation. "But…I've been thinking about it. And, well, I have to face that, don't I? I mean, I know you and the others hate it when you have to…to take somebody down, but it's about serving and protecting the innocent, right? About doing what you have to do, to do what's right? Somebody's got to do it, or the bad guys would just take over…and that would be hell on earth. So…I can do this, Jim…I can do this…." The words came out like a mantra, as if Blair was still trying to convince himself, even more than he was trying to convince Ellison.

Jim hadn't missed the fact that Sandburg hadn't been able to use the word 'kill'. Frowning, he wondered if Blair ever could kill someone and that worried him deeply. He felt something twist deep inside, and sadness welled up within him at the prospect of Blair having to know what ending another life felt like. Swallowing, he figured Sandburg would do whatever was needed to save someone else's life…but his own? Would he be able to kill in self-defence? Ellison wasn't at all sure his friend would be able to do that…and that could cost Blair his life, which would be infinitely worse in his humble opinion than the termination of some monster on two legs who preyed upon the weak and innocent. But, he could see that now was not the time for that particular discussion. Shifting a little on the sofa to ease his leg, he asked, "Why did you push me away like you did at the station today?"

Jerked from his thoughts about having to actually fire a gun someday, Blair looked confused for a moment as he tried to remember what Jim was talking about, and then he flushed in embarrassment. "Oh…that…"

"Yeah, 'that'. You almost knocked me over, Chief. Took me by surprise," Jim replied, trying to sound nonchalant but bothered by the memory.

Looking away, his fingers beating a nervous tattoo on the sofa until he stood and paced, Blair tried to find the words to explain. "I was, like totally blown away by Simon's offer…I couldn't take it in. I mean, I couldn't think, man…couldn't say anything except that I wouldn't cut my hair…I won't have to, will I?" he asked with a sudden look of dread, his eyes wide with the imagined horror of it all.

"You're changing the subject, Sandburg," Jim replied, not rising to the transparent attempt to redirect the conversation.

"Yeah, right," Blair replied, turning away to resume his restless pacing as he mumbled, "Doesn't matter, anyway, I guess. It'll grow back."

"Sandburg…if you don't want to talk about it…" Jim offered, not knowing whether to be concerned or frustrated with Blair's evident reluctance to share what he'd been feeling.

"No…it's just, well…I just reacted, Jim. I mean, I'd gone there to, I don't know, sorta say good-bye to the place, and turn in my pass…and I didn't have a clue what I was going to do now…now that I'd blown away what had passed as my career ambitions for the last ten years…and then I get this incredible offer…and then you were treating me like some kid in front of them all and I wondered how any of them could have any respect for me…how anybody could ever again have any respect for me…and I just lost it, man. I'm sorry…I know you didn't mean anything by it, that it was just fun…but, sometimes…sometimes I just wish everybody wouldn't treat me like I'm a child. I'm almost thirty, Jim…I'm not a kid anymore…"

No, he wasn't a kid anymore. What he'd endured in the last few months would age any man. Studying him, Jim despaired at the weariness he could see in Blair's eyes…at the loss of the innocence that had covered him like a mantle when they'd first met, and which had seemed able to survive any trauma to safeguard the enthusiasm and simple sheer joy in life that was so intrinsic to Sandburg's nature…any trauma but this last one. A man didn't blow up his life and not bear the scars of the loss deep within his soul.

"I'm sorry, Chief…I get carried away sometimes, I guess," Jim sighed, understanding now why Blair had acted the way he had. Though he hadn't talked much about it, Ellison knew Sandburg was being shunned like some kind of pariah by everyone he knew at the university. After having been respected as a 'wunderkind' for years by the other members of his academic circle and by his former students as a brilliant and impassioned teacher, that had to hurt very badly…God, what an understatement. It had to just about break the kid's heart. "I was just so damned glad to think you were going to be my partner, that it was all going to be okay, at least from my perspective…well, I didn't think."

Blair waved off the apology as he sat back down. "I know, Jim…don't worry about it, okay?"

Ellison nodded, but then continued soberly, "I know you're a grown-up, Sandburg…it's just, sometimes, I don't know…I forget." Hell, the kid had looked so cute and cocky standing there claiming there was no way he was going to cut that crazy hair, Jim just hadn't been able to resist giving him a hard time. But, now he realized he'd also just so desperately wanted to return to their light-hearted, teasing friendship… he'd just wanted everything to be back to normal. Bitterly, he thought, And I accuse Naomi of lacking empathy…

Sandburg felt his heart twist at the sight of the sorrow and regret that were etched on Ellison's face, and he couldn't stand it. None of this was Jim's fault…not any of it. Sandburg's mother had acted out of love, and so, Blair knew, had he when he'd tossed his career down the tubes. Jim had just been caught in something that could have hurt him terribly but over which he'd had no control. He shouldn't be suffering now, shouldn't feel a guilt that wasn't his to bear. Desperate to lighten the mood, Blair grinned as he shook his curls. "I know…it's the hair, isn't it?" he asked impishly. "And the fact that I was a perpetual student. Well…I'm not a student anymore…or at least I won't be when I graduate from the Academy… and maybe when my hair's short, I'll look more mature, wiser, more stable, solid… old, like you, man."

Rising to the bait, feigning umbrage, growling he wasn't 'that old', Jim threw a pillow at Blair in response to the teasing and was relieved to hear a faint giggle in response. It'll be all right, Ellison told himself, grabbing hold of that giggle like a parched man guzzles water. He wanted the reassurance Blair was offering him, wanted to believe the smile, the teasing. Needed to believe it. We'll find a way to make it all work out, he thought with determined passion.

Because it had to work.

Because Jim just couldn't imagine going back to those cold, lonely days and nights of his life before Sandburg had blasted his way into his home and his heart.

It just had to work. There weren't any other choices…no other options to guarantee Sandburg would always be a part of his life.

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

Once he'd chased the worry from Jim's eyes, Blair struggled back to his feet, admitting that he really was wasted and just wanted to sleep. He took the opportunity to point out that Ellison was still recovering from his injury, looked a little pale around the edges and should probably also have an early night.

"Nag, nag, nag," Jim muttered, but he got up nevertheless and headed to the stairs to turn in for the night. Blair was right; he was exhausted…they both were.

Blair watched his friend navigate the stairs awkwardly, poised to help if needed, only turning off the lights once Jim had arrived safely on the upper level. Heading into his own room, he softly shut the door and kicked off his shoes, then dropped fully clothed onto the bed. Thoughts whirled in his mind and his head pounded with the stress-induced headache. Briefly, he considered getting up again, to make himself a cup of chamomile tea, but decided it was too much effort.

A cop.

He was going to be a cop.

Blair couldn't decide what he thought about it all. Part of him was excited by the prospect…it gave him a goal, a purpose when he sorely needed one having been feeling desperately lost and unable to imagine any kind of concrete future. He respected Jim, and everyone else in the Major Crimes Unit. It gave him a burst of pride to know they wanted him for who he was, that they still trusted him and were eager to work with him regardless of the fiasco with the dissertation. He also knew first hand how important that work was, how much good they did, quietly, without fanfare, regardless of the risks because they were committed to the protection of the people in this city, committed to the law. Blair knew he could take a great deal of pride in being a member of that team for real, not just as a hanger-on. Knew he could make a difference in people's lives.

But, it scared the wits out of him to think about drawing a gun with the distinct possibility of having to use it. Firing a weapon was always the last resort, he knew that. And, if he opted for a career in the ranks, on patrol, the odds were good he might never have to use a gun. But, Major Crimes was different. They went up against some seriously scary psychos and even terrorists, let alone the run-of-the-mill gangsters, street gangs, gunrunners and drug smugglers…he knew only too well the odds of likely having to shoot someone someday if he worked there. There was no 'if' or 'maybe' about it…it was a sure thing…inevitable. The only questions were 'when' and 'how soon'?

But, he had to work in Major Crimes…because that's where Jim worked. And the whole point was to be Jim's partner. So, he'd have to deal with it. Taking a deep breath, he whispered aloud unconsciously, "I have to deal with this…get over it. I have to. I don't have a choice."

Rolling onto his side with his arms wrapped tightly around his chest and his knees drawn up, he tried to push the thoughts away. If he was going to be a cop, and he'd decided there didn't seem to be any other realistic option open to him that would allow him to continue supporting Jim, there was no way he'd ever not do his job or put someone else's life at risk and that was that. Period. No question, no debate, no doubt. Decision made, Blair promised himself he'd just have to work at getting to be a good enough marksman that, given the chance, he wouldn't have to shoot to kill, just to disable and disarm. It was the best compromise he could imagine and the only way he could live with the choices he was making.

But, when he tried to push away the immediate issues of shifting his career path from anthropology to law enforcement, he immediately came up against the vast open wound of his lost career. His breath hitched as he blinked hard, fighting the overwhelming sense of loss that threatened to swamp him. God, he'd loved teaching, seeing eyes brighten with understanding and curiosity, getting others to feel the same intrigue he did in trying to really grasp what made societies tick, why people in communities made the choices they did…their beliefs and lifestyles, what they worshipped and held sacred. It was his love of anthropology that had led him to Burton…and to the idea that Sentinels not only existed but could still exist. It had been the passion that had driven his life, fueled his dreams…and it was over, irretrievably, in an instant. Lost. Forever.

"Stop it," he ordered himself sharply. Thoughts like that only led to depression and misery. It wasn't over. He'd found his Sentinel and had made his choice to protect that Sentinel, for all sorts of reasons. To bolster his sense of the rightness of his actions, he reviewed those reasons, counting them off in his head.

First, as an anthropologist, he had a professional responsibility to protect his 'source' regardless of the costs to himself. It was about ethical behaviour and integrity.

Second, as a member of Simon's team, he had a responsibility to not let their work be compromised because of something some grad student had written after Simon had been good enough to get him the approval to act as a civilian observer. The media craziness had compromised their efforts to capture Zeller, and because of that, Simon and Megan had almost been killed, and at the time others were still at risk. It was about his responsibility to protect the community, to safeguard them and ensure they could have the protection they expected from, and deserved of, the police.

Third, he had a responsibility to protect Simon, who shared this secret and who could have his own career threatened if his complicity in protecting Jim's privacy and deliberate failure to fully inform his superiors was discovered. Oh, sure, the argument that he'd acted within the appropriate bounds of supervisory discretion could be argued, and Simon would no doubt survive. But, Blair had spent almost four years within the law enforcement community, knew their petty rivalries and jealousies were not unlike those he'd observed at the university and in countless other cultures. Simon's supervisors would have found a way to make him pay for leaving them hanging in the wind when the news broke. No way did Simon deserve that. No way. Not for the only crime of having stood by a friend. Blair couldn't do that to anyone, least of all a man he respected. It was about loyalty…and friendship.

Fourth, Blair wouldn't ever do anything to hurt Jim Ellison, period, not intentionally, not ever. His best friend's life would have been turned inside out, and Jim, so intensely private, would have been badly hurt, even traumatized, by all the media attention…and, worse could happen. Some psycho, or God forbid, Brackett, could decide to go after him, and use everything Blair knew, everything he'd written in that book, against Jim…and no way would Blair ever be able to live with Jim being hurt or killed because of something he'd written. It was about love.

The loss of the offered millions and the prospect of a Nobel Prize didn't even occur to him. Fame and fortune had never been the driving motivations of his life. Knowledge, making a difference, solving puzzles, helping people, learning, teaching, friends…having a place to call 'home'. Those were the things that mattered to Blair Sandburg, and those things he still had. Well, maybe not the 'teaching', he thought with deep regret as he wondered what his students thought about all that had happened, profoundly sorry to have them feel he'd somehow betrayed them by betraying the ethical principles he'd always told them were so important, so crucial to their search for understanding.

For a moment, Blair wondered again at his naiveté at having written the paper in the first place. What had he thought he would do with it? Oh, it wasn't unheard of to have a closed defence, open only to those who would make the decision on his doctorate, the research buried for years. At least it would exist, and someday the world could know that the marvel that was Jim Ellison had truly existed, and have hope that others like Jim were out there, keeping watch. And, if there were others, maybe they'd find some value and personal hope in his paper, understand themselves better, feel less 'odd'. Ruefully, he knew this was what he had hoped to achieve.

But, if he hadn't been able to win an agreement from his advisor to support such a measure, he'd had his back up paper ready. 'The Thin Blue Line' he'd called it, grinning as he'd typed out the title, remembering the first time he'd met Simon. 'The line that separates our guardians from the rest of society has led to the creation of a distinct and vigorous subculture within the law enforcement community, providing a milieu of safety and acceptance for those who must walk in darkness that the rest of us might sleep.' That had been the first line, and it was more than two hundred pages long, the final draft complete for some time now. Not that it would be needed anymore, either. And he really regretted that fact. The people he had come to know deserved to be understood and respected for what they were, what they gave everyday of their lives to protect others. He hadn't submitted it because it would have signaled an end to the charade that allowed him his observer status at the PD. But, he felt badly now for having delayed, because now it was too late. Pondering that, he wondered if maybe, someday, he could get that paper published, or parts of it anyway, maybe in a police journal. Then maybe something worthwhile could be salvaged from the wreck of his academic career.

Sighing, he rolled and punched his pillow, thumping his head back down upon it. If only, he thought, and then paused. If only, wasn't worth thinking about. The Fates evidently had a different pattern in mind for his life than he had had and who was he to argue with them? After all, if he had gotten his doctorate, what then? Had he really ever thought he'd pursue a full time academic career after he'd met Jim and gotten so involved in his friend's life? His first duty was to the Sentinel as his Guide. Besides, he suspected very strongly that he didn't have any choice. He figured that, however weird it might be, he was as genetically programmed with the drive to be his Sentinel's protective Guide as Jim was genetically designed to be a Sentinel to protect his tribe. In any case, his first desire was to always be there to back Jim up, as his friend. And that's what he was going to do. So…maybe he should stop feeling so bad about what he'd given up and start feeling good about what he still had.

Duty, drive and desire aligned, he was finally able to let the thoughts drift away as he settled into a dreamless sleep.

Upstairs, attuned to the restlessness of his best friend, hearing the unconscious whispers and able to guess the thoughts that provoked them, Jim stared into the darkness, wishing he could turn back time. Finally, when his senses told him Blair had finally settled into sleep, he let himself relax as well, allowing the darkness to overcome him, hoping it would not hold haunting dreams of what had been or, worse, of what might yet be.

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

For the next two weeks, Blair dove into research, his first instinct whenever encountering a new challenge. He hit the public library and when he couldn't get the texts he wanted there, he badgered Jim into borrowing books on law enforcement and detective work from the department that he wouldn't have personal access to again until he was at the Academy, and then peppered his roommate with questions as he ploughed through the heavy material. Jim tried to tell him to relax, that there was plenty of time to get into all that stuff once Blair was at the Academy, but finally gave up and cheerfully at first, then ever so patiently after the first few days, answered the questions put to him. It was a relief to be able to go back to work, even if it was just desk duty, to get a break from the endless stream of questions and more questions from his intense and dedicated friend.

Though he'd hesitated to do so, leery of seeming to seek more 'special consideration', Blair finally did decide to ask Simon privately if there was any way to avoid having to lose the hair. It was ridiculous, he knew, to want so badly to hold onto the unconventional curls…but it wasn't the hair itself that he wanted to hold onto, but something of himself, some visible symbol of what he'd been before he'd made his decision to become one with the thin blue line. When he looked in the mirror, he wanted to see himself, not some stranger in a uniform heading out to face a life he'd never have envisioned for himself. So, he swallowed his distaste of asking for special intercession with a grimace, straightened his shoulders and walked into the restaurant where he'd asked Simon to meet him for lunch.

The captain of the Major Crimes Unit was already there, staring sightlessly at the menu as he wondered why Sandburg had asked for this private meeting, specifically indicating that he wanted to see Simon alone, which could only mean that he didn't want Ellison to know anything about it. Chewing on his lip, he sincerely hoped the former grad student hadn't changed his mind about going to the Academy.

"Hey, Simon…thanks for agreeing to see me," Blair said as he slid into the booth opposite Simon in the trendy vegetarian restaurant Sandburg had suggested.

"Sandburg," Simon acknowledged with a nod. Then, to avoid what he feared was the purpose of this meeting, he pointed irritably at the menu as he continued, "Could you decipher this for me…I have no idea what kind of food this place serves, or what 'Triton's Folly', 'Demeter's Feast' or 'Ambrosia' might possibly be. Couldn't you have suggested something that serves good, old fashioned meat and potatoes?"

"Just watching out for your cholesterol, Simon," Blair soothed with an impish grin as he picked up his own copy of the menu. "Somebody's got to make sure my boss stays healthy."

Sandburg was surprised when Simon immediately blew out an obvious breath of relief and seemed to visibly relax at his words. In response to the unspoken question signaled by his quirking brow and expression of sudden confusion, Simon smiled softly as he explained, "I was afraid you invited me here to tell me you'd changed your mind about becoming a cop. I'm glad to know I was wrong."

"Oh!" Blair exclaimed as understanding bloomed in his eyes, and then he blushed as he looked hurriedly back down at the menu, touched that Simon had been worried that he might not be joining the Major Crimes Unit. "No," he murmured, shaking his head, "that's not why I wanted to talk to you. I'm going to the Academy. You can count on that. It was something else…"

Picking a fresh, still warm multigrain roll from the basket the server had placed on the table with two glasses of water when he'd first arrived, Simon broke it open as he replied, "Alright, you wanted to talk…so talk."

The server arrived again just then, so Blair took a moment to order, for both of them as it turned out when Simon looked helplessly at the menu and then told Sandburg to just order something the kid knew he would like. When the attractive young woman turned away, Blair toyed with the cutlery for a moment, fidgeting as he wondered if this was such a good idea.

"Sandburg, whatever it is, spit it out," Banks ordered, impatient as ever with hesitant delays and obfuscations.

"Yeah, okay," Blair replied, taking a deep breath as he looked up into Simon's eyes, his own projecting his mingled emotions of hope and embarrassment. "Simon, I've been thinking…"

"Lord help me," Simon muttered, but there was a twinkle buried deep in his dark eyes.

The soft comment surprised a smile from Blair and the familiar teasing helped him to relax. Grateful, he pushed on, "It's about my…hair." Pausing for a moment, he checked to see if there was any reaction.

Banks narrowed his eyes a little, beginning to suspect where this was going. Unconsciously, his shoulders straightened a little as his lips thinned, waiting for it. Without realizing it, he had already begun to shake his head…no way could Blair expect to save those ridiculous curls. The police academy was in many respects a paramilitary establishment and recruits, cadets, had to conform to a certain standard. It was part of learning the discipline required in their future careers.

Seeing the incipient signs of refusal, Blair rushed on, "Just give me a minute, here, okay? Before you say 'no'? It would be different if I was going to follow the established pattern of being a uniformed patrolman, but I'm not, right? You're going to bring me straight into Major Crimes to work with Jim…I mean, that's the whole idea, that I be his partner? Well…we don't work in uniform there…and we do a fair amount of undercover work. So, my hair could be an asset." Raising his hands for emphasis, a quizzical expression on his face, Sandburg asked, "I ask you, do I look like a cop to you?"

Simon's head was still shaking in the negative as he studied Sandburg, but now it was for a whole different reason. "No, Sandburg," he replied without a trace of a smile, "you don't look like a cop, not unless I count the guys in Vice or Narcotics, and that's your point, isn't it?"

"Yep, that's it, exactly," Blair confirmed as he sat back, pleased that Simon seemed to be willing to at least consider the idea.

Thoughtfully, Banks stared blindly out of the window beside them, his fingertips lightly tapping the table as he pondered Blair's request. At any given time, there were any number of cases on his desk that required some undercover work and Sandburg might be just the wild card he needed. The kid made a good point. No one would look at that hair and those earnest eyes, or that boyish face and think 'cop'. It would be virtually unheard of for someone to be exempted from the rigorous standards of the Academy, but then Sandburg didn't seem to fit any of the usual categories. Never had, come to that. The kid was…unique. Unbidden, another thought slipped into the forefront of his mind.

"You didn't want Ellison here because you don't want him hearing you volunteer for what are usually dangerous and uncontrollable assignments, right?" he asked, turning his astute gaze back on the younger man.

Looking a little chagrined to have been so transparent, Blair nodded as he replied, "Yeah, you got it, man. I don't think he's quite wrapped his head around what all this means yet. I mean…I think in the back of his mind, he still thinks he'll be able to order me to 'Stay in the truck, Chief!'" His voice had deepened as he mimicked his partner's tones and cadence.

Giving him a sardonic half smile, Simon agreed, "I suspect you're right about that. The first time you move out with a gun in your hand is going to shock the hell out of him."

"He won't be the only one," Blair muttered, looking away briefly, but then he gave himself a visible shake and turned back to Simon. "So…what about the hair?"

"Not so fast, Sandburg," Simon replied, made thoughtful by Blair's response to the idea of holding a gun. "You have come to terms with the fact you'll have to use a weapon someday, right?"

Blowing out a long breath, Blair nodded, his face somber, his eyes deadly serious. "Yes, Simon," he replied firmly, "I have. I couldn't go to the Academy if I had any doubts about that. Lives will depend on me doing my job…you don't have to worry about me screwing that up. I promise you."

Equally sober, Simon nodded in acceptance of the vow. "I believe you," he said simply as he reflected that for all the kid looked like a refugee from 'Hair', there were few men he knew who were as committed or responsible in their choices and actions. When he thought about the choice Blair had made to protect Jim Ellison's secret, he amended his thought…there was no one he knew who was more committed, who would give more, or even as much, as this man had done to do what was right.

Grateful, relieved, Blair blinked and looked away from the intensity of Simon's gaze. Silence fell between them as the server brought their food and set it before them. Blair pushed his hair back behind his ears, then picked up his soupspoon. Knowing Simon enjoyed spicy food, he'd ordered them gazpacho to be followed by the 'Demeter's Feast' Greek salad plate.

"So, not to be pushy," he resumed as he dipped the spoon in his bowl.

"'Pushy', Sandburg, you?" Simon teased as he started in on his own lunch. "Never."

"C'mon, Simon…don't keep me in suspense, man," Blair cajoled. "Do you think there's any way around the rules about this hair business?"

Idly stirring his own soup, Simon sighed. Finally, he nodded, as he made his decision. "Alright, you make a good point. I'll see what I can do," he replied. At the look of naked relief on the kid's face, Simon held up his hands as he said hurriedly, "Now…don't get your hopes too high. I don't make these decisions. I can only make a request, that for the good of the department and in expectation of the duties you will be assigned, that you be allowed a dispensation with respect to the regulation haircut."

"I know, I know," Blair answered, his head bobbing in understanding. But, his face lit with that smile that could light the whole world let alone warm a cynical police captain's heart as he said, "Thanks, Simon…I really appreciate this."

Banks closed his eyes for a moment and shook his head slightly, feeling the depth of gratitude he read in Sandburg's eyes was out of all proportion to what he'd agreed to do. And that was when he saw past the arguments Sandburg had made to keep the hair and wondered why it was so important to the kid. Hair grew back, after all. Cutting it shouldn't have been such a big deal. Returning Sandburg's gaze, with a look that suggested he expected an answer, he asked, "All right, now that you've manipulated me into doing what you want, and pointed out why it's good for the department, would you care to tell me why it's so important to you? It's only hair, Sandburg…it's not like the hair is who you are."

Taken aback by Simon's insight, not having expected the question, Blair looked away and swallowed. Taking a deep breath, he nodded, as he looked back and replied softly, "I know it's just hair, and that it would grow back. It's just that…there're so many changes in my life, you know? I'm not…what I was, who I was…for so long. Not going to be what I expected to be someday. Don't get me wrong, I'm not sorry to be going to the Academy. I'm grateful for the opportunity. But…I never expected to be a cop…I guess I just want to keep something that's 'me'. Crazy, I guess…."

"No, Sandburg, it's not crazy," Simon replied gently, compassion in his eyes. "What you did is…well, pretty damned amazing. Not to mention incredibly noble. You have a right to want to hold onto some symbol of the man you were before…well before everything went to hell in a handbasket."

Blair blushed again and looked away, feeling a lump in his throat at Simon's words and the look of profound understanding and respect in the older man's eyes. "Thanks, Simon," he murmured, "for understanding."

"Oh, I understand alright, but listen to me, Sandburg," the captain went on, his voice stern, needing to be heard clearly. "I meant what I said that the hair isn't you. Whether or not we get this dispensation, you don't need those locks to be Blair Sandburg. Who you are is defined by your intellect, your heart and your soul, by the choices and decisions you make, the actions you take…not by what anyone, including you, sees on the outside in terms of something as superficial as the style you wear your hair. Remember that."

Taking a deep breath, Blair nodded as he looked back at his Captain. "I'll remember, sir, thank you," he promised.

"See that you do…I can't say I'm personally all that fond of the hair. But, I have come to very much appreciate the man underneath all those curls," Simon replied, his voice a little rough, as he surprised himself with that admission. It wasn't his style to be so forthcoming or free with his sentiments about his people.

Blair grinned impishly as he replied, "I know what you mean…I'm not fond of the cigars, but I love you, too, Simon."

"That's 'Captain' to you, Sandburg," Simon replied with a withering glare, only half kidding.

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," Blair snapped back with parade ground dignity, then ruined the effect with a snicker as he picked up his spoon and resumed his lunch. Relieved that his request had been accepted, warmed by Simon's friendship and touched by the older man's words, he suddenly found he felt really hungry.

As their lunch progressed, they talked easily about the curriculum at the Academy and how Blair was preparing himself for the courses he'd face. More relaxed, Blair was able to bring himself to ask the question he'd been wondering about ever since Simon had made him this incredible offer. "Simon," he asked, "can I ask how you got anybody to agree to me attending the Academy, let alone be slated for a detective position on your team? I'm mean, a community that prides itself on representing truth and justice is an odd place to find a self-proclaimed liar and fraud."

Caught off-guard by the question, Simon looked away, staring out of the window as he thought about just saying he'd 'handled it' and letting it go at that. But, frowning at how easily Sandburg referred to himself as a 'liar and fraud' made him reconsider. Looking back at Blair, he thought how wrong it was…and how much right Blair had to know about the conversations that had occurred about him. Taking a breath, Simon said, "Sandburg, it is all about 'truth' and 'justice'. When I heard about the sacrifice you had made, there was nothing I could do to set the record straight in the public forum. But, within the department, there was a lot I could, and did, say." Looking away from those intense blue eyes, the captain hoped what he was about to say wouldn't be seen by Sandburg as a fundamental violation of trust.

Sighing, he went on, "I decided it was time for me to tell the truth to my superiors about Jim's senses. And that everything you had said in that paper was true. They were somewhat surprised to hear all that, let me assure you."

"I'll bet they were," Blair murmured, blowing out a silent breath, his brows arching as he considered the implications. "Does Jim know about this?"

"Not yet," Simon replied with a long-suffering sigh, too able to picture how that conversation would go. "But, I'll tell him later today, as I'm telling you now, you don't need to worry that Jim will be in any way compromised by this. My superiors have the same fundamental responsibility to protect his privacy, as a member of the force, as I do. Anyway, I assured them that I'd checked the precedents and verified that the legal rights of citizens would not be compromised by the use of his talents…" Simon broke off at the look of surprise on Blair's face. "What," he continued, "did you think you were the only one borrowing books from the departmental library to do the research to be absolutely certain that what we were doing was legally and ethically valid?"

Blair just kept his mouth closed and shook his head. If he had thought that, Simon's revelation had certainly disabused him of any such narrow assumptions.

"Anyway," the captain continued, "I explained to them that your real role was to work with Jim, that you were doing research with him to understand and control his senses. I also told them that, in my opinion, you had been, and continue to be, essential for him to function at peak effectiveness. And, that's the 'truth' part of it, Sandburg."

"Thanks, Simon," Blair breathed, but Simon held up his hand.

"I'm not finished," he said. "There's still the 'justice' part that needs to be addressed. What you did took a lot of guts, Sandburg…and a whole lot of integrity," Simon said, respect burning in his eyes. "I couldn't replace what you had sacrificed for Jim, for the department, and, yes, I know, even for me. But, I was damned if I wasn't going to offer you something to approximate what you had so nobly given up without hesitation…a career in law enforcement if you wanted one. I pointed out to the Chief and the Commissioner that you had made a very substantial contribution to our team, not just as a support to Jim, but through your brilliant, insightful, creatively intuitive and unorthodox perspectives…and I had the arrest records to back that up. I want you on my team. Further, I pointed out that since you had compromised your whole future, impugning your academic integrity, not to mention your own personal credibility, to protect the department and to get the media out of our face to let us do our jobs, we owed you…big time. When they had the whole picture, they couldn't help but agree with me. So, pressure was brought to bear on the Academy." It hadn't been quite as easy as that, but Sandburg didn't need to know the gory details.

"Pressure?" Blair repeated, concerned and uncomfortable with that idea.

Simon hesitated again, biting his lip, wishing he could say that he'd been able to remove all the hurdles from Sandburg's path, but he couldn't. "Sandburg, the people at the Academy don't know any of this. And, they no doubt resent the pressure and wonder what makes you so special. But…they're cops. Good cops. They know that nothing, least of all what the media presents as fact, is all that it seems on the surface. I'm hoping they'll give you a chance to show them what you can do…that they'll give you a fair shake. I'm sorry, it was the best that I could do."

"Sorry?" Blair stammered. "My God, Simon…you just keep blowing me away, man." Pausing for a moment, speechless at what this truly honourable man had done for him, Blair could only shake his head in awe…and overwhelming gratitude. Taking a breath, he said quietly, his voice shaking with sincerity, "I don't know how I'll ever be able to thank you for this, Captain. But, I promise you, I won't ever let you down."

"You never have, Blair," Simon replied. "You never have." Pausing before he returned his attention to his salad, he stated simply, "Nor do you owe anybody anything for this. It was about 'truth' and 'justice', period."

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

True to his word, Simon bit the bullet as soon as he returned to his office, calling to Ellison to follow him as he walked by. Once they had reached his office, he closed the door as he motioned Jim to a seat.

Wondering what his superior wanted to discuss, Jim felt a vague disquiet as the silence stretched between them while Simon stared out the office window, obviously uncomfortable.

Finally, with a sigh, Banks turned to face Jim as he gave it to him straight. "There's something you need to know. When I learned what Sandburg had said during his press conference, I decided that the time had come to set the record straight, at least as far as I am able. I've told the Chief and the Commissioner about your senses."

"What?" Jim exclaimed, stunned. Consternation gave way to a reflexive anger that Simon had betrayed his trust.

Seeing the expression hardening on Ellison's face, Simon cut in before Jim could say more. "Just listen for a minute before you blow up. Your 'secret' isn't compromised. They are as bound as I am to respect and protect your privacy," he assured, hoping this would assuage his subordinate's anxiety. But, when the anger remained, even verged on what looked a lot like disgust as Jim turned his head away, his jaw tight and his posture rigidly uncompromising, Simon felt his own anger flare. "You listen to me, Detective Ellison and you listen good," he ordered, his voice a low snarl. "Your best friend and partner crucified himself to protect you…destroyed himself professionally and personally. Sandburg labeled himself a fraud and tossed his own credibility and integrity into the gutter for you. Maybe you can live with that, but I couldn't. Can you possibly imagine that I could have ever gotten a self-proclaimed fraud a chance at the Academy without letting the Chief and the Commissioner know the truth? God damn it, Jim, we owe him…you, me, this city…and I'll be damned if I was going to let him hang himself and not do everything in my power to repay his sacrifice. If he can live with virtually everyone in this world believing he's an unethical fraud, you can damned well live with your superiors knowing the truth. Am I clear?"

Simon's angry words hit Jim with the force of a battering ram, smashing through his instinctive, fear spawned anger with a truth that was humiliating and overwhelming. His shoulders sagged as he bowed his head in shame. Fighting down the bile that rose with the understanding that Simon held him in as much contempt as he held himself, he murmured quietly, "Very clear, Captain."

"Good," Banks snapped as he turned away. There was another long silence between them and Simon felt his own anger dissipate. Better than Ellison knew, he understood Jim's fear of exposure and how that fear compromised his capacity to manage his senses…understood that Jim truly believed the truth about his senses couldn't be revealed.

Behind him, Jim straightened as he looked at his superior's back. "I'm sorry, Simon. Of course you had to share the truth with the Chief and the Commissioner. And…believe me," he continued, his voice hoarse with the emotions he was trying desperately to control, "I know what Blair did for me…I know what I owe him. Thank you for doing what you did to…to stand by him. To give him something back."

Banks nodded, suddenly feeling very weary. "All right," he sighed as he turned back. His expression was compassionate as he gazed down at his subordinate and saw the guilt written so clearly on Jim's face. But he couldn't find the words to grant absolution. Ellison would have to find the way to make his own peace with his conscience. Waving awkwardly toward the bullpen, he said quietly, "There's work to do…best you get back at it."

Swallowing, looking away, Jim stood and left the office.

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

Jim didn't say anything to Blair about his conversation with Simon when he got home after work. He didn't know about the meeting his superior had had with his roommate earlier in the day. But, his subdued manner when he entered the loft was the only signal Blair needed to know that Jim now knew that more people shared the secret of his senses.

Later though, Blair wondered what exactly had been said when Jim, after pushing the food around on his plate without taking a single bite, finally laid down his fork and looked up at him with haunted eyes. "What?" Sandburg asked, worried.

Jim's gaze dropped as he looked away, shaking his head a little before he looked back and asked quietly, "Chief…you do know how much I appreciate what you did…the press conference…don't you?"

"Yeah…sure I do," Blair hastened to reassure him. "Why?"

Shrugging a little helplessly, Jim replied hesitantly, "It just feels so…wrong. I can't handle people knowing the truth…so you set yourself up to be seen as a liar. I…" But, his voice trailed off, caught in the pain of a dilemma he couldn't find a way to resolve.

"Hey," Blair replied softly as he reached to grip Jim's forearm firmly. "It's all right, Jim. Everything has turned out all right. I'm going to the Academy; I get to be your partner for real. Let it go, man…we're past that."

Jim searched Blair's eyes and found the absolution he so sorely needed…but, somehow, it didn't assuage the guilt he felt to the depths of his soul.

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

Simon must have been persuasive, because Blair received a call from the Academy two days later informing him that in view of his anticipated assignment following graduation and for the good of the department, special permission was being granted to him to forego the usual regulation hair cut. However, he was cautioned that his hair was to be tied back at all times, and when in full uniform, it was to be pulled up and concealed by his cap.

Blair couldn't resist a cheer of victory when he hung up the phone, his face blazing with happiness. When Jim heard the news, he could only shake his head as he reached out to ruffle his friend's hair while muttering, "Only you, Chief, only you could pull off something like this…"

Of course, he might not have been so sanguine if he'd known that Blair had volunteered for undercover work as the rationale for keeping his long hair…but all Sandburg had said was he'd sought Simon's support that since he wouldn't be working in a uniformed branch but in Major Crimes, the regulation haircut wasn't, perhaps, really, absolutely, necessary.

And so it was, when the day came, Blair stepped out of his room crisply dressed in the stiffly pressed spanking new uniform of a police cadet, his hair pulled back and hidden under the formal peaked cap of a police officer. Unusually reticent, his manner shy, he looked over at Jim who was sliding pancakes from the griddle onto a plate. Straightening his shoulders, he asked doubtfully, "So, uh, what do you think?"

Jim had been gazing at him with an unreadable look on his face but his expression relaxed into a slight smile as he replied, "Looking good, Chief…different…but good."

Smiling with relief, Blair stepped forward to take the plate Jim was holding out toward him. "Thanks, man. I feel like a kid dressed up for Halloween, you know? It'll take a while for this to feel…well…normal, I guess." Moving to the table, he pulled off his cap and set it to the side, his gathered hair falling down to hang over the back of his collar.

I can imagine it will, Jim thought with a twinge of sadness. Sandburg had had to give up so much to come to the point of wearing that uniform. But all he said as he sat down across from his friend and picked up his glass of juice was, "Don't worry, you'll get used to it."

Blair nodded as he took a bite. But, the butterflies in his stomach were taking up too much room for him to get down more than a few bites and a couple of sips of juice. First day nerves, he told himself as he pushed the plate back and picked up his cap. Reaching to shove his hair under, he slid the cap onto his head and straightened it carefully. Taking a deep breath, he said as he stood, "Well, I don't want to be late on my first day, so I'd better be off. See you later."

"'Later, Chief…and, Sandburg, don't worry, you're going to do just fine," Jim replied, his voice warm and reassuring. "In fact, I predict that you'll be great."

"Thanks, Jim," Blair replied with a grateful smile…and then he was gone, the door closing softly behind him.

The Sentinel listened to the clatter of steps on the stairwell and sighed as he pushed his own plate away. He'd meant it; he believed Blair would blow them away at the Academy. Jim Ellison just wished there could have been another way that hadn't cost his friend so much.

Turning his gaze to the door, Jim murmured, "I promise you, Sandburg, this will be okay. I promise I'll keep you safe, that you'll be all right."

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

After his first day at the Academy, Blair wasn't sure being allowed to keep the hair was such a good thing. Too many people there had seen his press conference and were aware that he'd labeled himself a fraud…and they didn't hesitate, or at least several of them didn't, to tell everyone else in the new class of cadets. The hair only gave one more excuse for them to jibe at him with insults and speculations about his masculinity if not his integrity.

Gritting his teeth, pasting a smile on his face, Blair told himself that he'd only gotten what he asked for and he'd be damned if he'd abuse Simon's support by cutting his hair now just to 'fit in'. He didn't fit in. With or without the hair. He wasn't a jock, or an 'outdoors' sort of person who looked for work outside of a traditional office setting, however much he could understand the lure having enjoyed his field work a whole lot more than filling out those forms administration never tired of requiring. He didn't have an overwhelming urge to 'protect' anyone but his Sentinel, though it mattered to him to know he'd be able to save lives. He hadn't grown up in a law enforcement household, taking after a parent who had been, or still was, a cop, but then he thought with a small smile that sharing a home with Jim was not unlike having a relative he respected in law enforcement. Ruefully, he shook his head, reflecting that maybe he wasn't so different after all. But, as he looked at some of the behemoths that surrounded him, he knew he'd never be that tall or muscular. And, as he thought about those who were trying to bully him, he reflected that he had no desire for power of any kind over other people.

And he had labeled himself 'a fraud', so he couldn't be surprised by the wary and even resentful looks he got from other students and many of the staff. He could only hope, as Simon did, that they'd give him a 'fair shake' and that, after a while, they'd accept, if not exactly trust, him.

After a few days, he found a niche with other cadets who had chosen this career simply because they wanted to serve, because it was the right thing to do, right for them anyway, to make a difference for the better in their community. The rest he tried to get along with as best he could, ignoring the malicious and sarcastic comments made when the instructors weren't present or too quietly for anyone in authority to hear. He didn't complain, didn't whine, didn't even tell Jim about any of it. What would be the point? Jim would only feel badly, maybe try to get involved, which would only make him look like a wimp. This was his row to hoe, so he bent himself to the tasks at hand, determined to do his absolute best to repay the trust Simon and the others had in him. It wasn't as if he cared what the other cadets said, not really. They didn't know him. But, they might have to work together one day, who knew, so he did his best not to cultivate enemies, to win tolerance if not respect.

He worked hard at every aspect of the curriculum. A professional student for years, the course work was a snap for him and he routinely scored brilliantly on the quizzes and tests. But, he didn't study to get good grades…he studied long into each night to make sure he'd be a good cop. Though he didn't think of himself as an athlete, he'd done plenty of fieldwork in harsh conditions…and he'd had to keep up with a Sentinel, who'd had Covert Ops military training, for years. So much to his own surprise, he also scored in the top three on the initial physical fitness of agility, stamina and speed. But, he pushed himself harder still…out in the streets, being fit, being able to chase down a suspect or race to someone's defence could mean the difference between life and death.

The physical training related to self-defence and bringing down an assailant was more difficult. Blair had an aversion for physical violence and abhorred the idea of combat. But, he'd had to learn a few hard lessons in self-defence over the years working with Ellison and he was pragmatic. This was just one more skill, one more challenge he needed to conquer if he was to be Jim's partner. Though he was considerably smaller than many of the other cadets, he was solid, and when he was determined, he was a force to be reckoned with…a terrier that just wouldn't let go. So, he practiced hour after hour, honing and perfecting the moves, unconscious of his natural balance and exceptional grace of movement that others came to admire. It wasn't long before he could more than hold his own, even dropping Mallory, one of the more belligerent and aggressive cadets who was a great deal larger, stronger, meaner and who never seemed to tire of baiting him, to the mat with relative ease. An ease that only inflamed the dislike Mallory harboured for him, fanning it into a fury spawned by prejudice and fed by arrogance.

"I'll take you down," the big, surly cadet growled one day from the mat where he lay face down and helpless with Blair's knee in his back, pinning him to the floor.

"Maybe," Sandburg agreed with easy good humour, "but not today, my friend."

"I'm no friend of yours, you lying fag," Mallory growled back.

"Gosh, Mallory, you keep saying those nice things and I'll begin to wonder if you're in love with me," Blair taunted good-naturedly as he released his hold and moved to help the other cadet to his feet.

Furious, the muscular cadet rolled and kicked out, but Blair had been waiting for the move. It wasn't the first time that Mallory had played dirty. Philosophically, Sandburg just figured it was good practice in never letting down his guard around a suspect who had apparently been subdued. Stepping back from the attack, his hands up as he crouched in readiness for another aggressive assault, Blair prepared to take Mallory down again. Which he did, with unnerving ease. The two cadets hadn't realized they'd garnered a bit of an audience, other cadets around them turning at Mallory's tone of threat to see if there was a problem. When the bully hit the mat for a second time, red-faced and furious, while Blair moved with the grace of a dancer and didn't even break a sweat, there was a spattering of applause.

At the sound, Sandburg looked around in surprise, gave a quick grin and bowed his head in acknowledgment. But, inside, he was sorry for the attention. Mallory had never liked him, and it was only too clear the easy malice was swiftly building into a very real hatred…and that could only lead to more confrontations with the hostile cadet. It was Blair's secret and profound hope that when they finally did graduate, they'd be assigned so far apart from one another that he'd never have to work with the guy again, because he just didn't trust Mallory to ever be more than trouble.

In class, Sandburg aced the role-play sessions that required emotional insight into people, demonstrating a brilliant capacity to disarm, to win trust and cooperation and to diffuse potentially deadly situations. His experience working with Jim and the others, combined with his own keen intelligence, was revealed time and again in case studies and scenarios requiring creative intuition combined with thoughtful and informed judgment. But, even then, he pursued lengthy conversations with the instructors and the other cadets, exploring and debating other options that might have even better results in the kinds of situations they were discussing.

Thorough, rigorous, Blair challenged himself to the limits and beyond every hour of every day to ensure that when he was 'out there' for real that no one would be at risk because he didn't know how to do his job.

The hardest of all, though, was coming to grips with the gun…literally. When his assigned weapon was first held out to him, it had been an effort of supreme will, of extreme control, to reach out and grasp it, taking it firmly into a hand he desperately tried to keep from shaking. Turning away, fighting his inclination to shudder and heave a deep breath to draw in air to drive off the feeling of suffocation, Blair kept his muscles rigid, his expression bland. He could feel the weight of it in his fist, the cold, sleek hardness of it and he could have sworn it reeked of the smell of blood. Keep it together, Sandburg, you can do this, he commanded himself as he fell into line along the wall of the interior shooting range, reminding himself of the few times when Jim had pushed a gun into his hands and he'd swallowed hard, knowing at the time it was necessary. Well, this was also necessary. The fact that he hadn't actually ever had to aim a gun at someone, and fire, with the intent to wound if not kill wasn't really relevant, was it?

He forced himself to listen to the instructor's words about how to hold, care for and use the weapon. "You must always aim for the body as this presents the largest target and allows the best possibility of disabling the assailant. Remember…no fancy shooting, ever…when you fire, you do so with deadly intent. It may well mean your life, not to mention the lives of the people you are sworn to protect," the instructor stated with implacable clarity.

Blair's breath caught at those words and he realized with a shock of horror that he'd been unconsciously deluding himself to think he'd not have to learn to shoot to kill. Forcing himself to breathe, fighting the bile that rose in his throat, he trembled with his determination to see this through…to do what was necessary.

To learn to kill.

It took everything he had.

When it came time to fire it at the target, the cadets were directed to put on sound mufflers to protect their eardrums, and then each took a place in the long bank of stalls. Blair swallowed hard against his parched throat, took a deep breath and lifted the weapon, holding it in both hands, his arms straight and elbows locked, his feet spaced apart for balance. Sighting along the barrel to the target beyond, he squeezed the trigger gently, not jerking it…and scored a hit in the center of the man-shaped image.

He thought he might throw up.

Instead, he gritted his jaw, forced himself to take a deep breath and fired again…and again…and again…until the pistol was empty. When he relaxed his muscles from their rigid stance, his arms were shaking, his whole body trembling and he had to fight off the desire to weep. Rubbing his sweaty palms along the sides of his trousers, he reloaded, lifted the weapon, and resumed firing. He could do this. He had to. He didn't have a choice.

From that day on, he spent every spare moment on the firing range, until he'd attained top scores and rated as a marksman. When one of his instructors approached him to ask if he'd consider serving as a sniper on special assault and rescue SWAT teams, Blair froze inside at the thought of patiently holding a rifle with the intent to kill, but just shook his head. It would be too much like being an assassin and the very idea of it made him feel ill. Too much imagination, Sandburg, he castigated himself as the instructor waited for his response. "No," he explained then, glad he was able to maintain an easy, calm tone, "I already have an assignment waiting for me, but thanks anyway." Then he simply turned back to the firing range to resume his practice. Blair knew he was already more than capable of efficiently killing someone if and when that terrible day came, but that wasn't nearly good enough to satisfy his own rigorous standards. No, he was determined to be good enough to maybe have the chance in a desperate situation to disarm without having to take a life, no matter how dangerous the criminal might be. It was up to the courts to make life and death decisions, and he intended so far as was ever possible to give the courts the opportunity to do their job.

In the early days, Jim tried to get Blair to talk about life at the Academy, wondering if his friend was getting a fair shake. But, Sandburg would just shrug, open one of his books, say everything was fine and study well past the time when he should have been in bed. Shrugging, Ellison told himself not to be surprised. This was Sandburg the Student…obsessive as ever about learning all he could as fast as possible.

But, as the weeks went by, Jim couldn't help but notice Blair had changed. He was quieter for one thing, more somber than Ellison had ever known him to be. The indefinable spark, that mixture of bright enthusiasm and pervasive cheerfulness, the wonder that had been in his eyes, the way he'd chattered on and on about whatever caught his fancy…it was all missing. The kid would smile, even crack a joke from time to time, but the lightness of spirit was gone and Jim mourned its loss. One day, he found himself wondering when he'd last heard Blair laughing with high good spirits, unreservedly…like a delighted child. And, he found it had been so long that he couldn't actually remember. He only knew it had been too long, and he wondered if he'd ever hear that sound again.

Maybe he should have talked to Sandburg about it, but he didn't know what to say. How could he complain about missing what amounted to an innocence of spirit when he knew too damned well the pain Blair had suffered on his behalf, and was no doubt still suffering, was what had cost Blair his innocence? How could he ask his friend why he was so serious and somber when he knew the doubts Sandburg had had about becoming a police officer? Blair had always been the one with the ready words and the right questions, the one to provoke discussions about difficult subjects…when he was silent, Jim didn't know how to deal with it. He didn't want to push, so he backed off.

Made for quiet evenings in the loft.

Ellison told himself it would be better when they were working together again. Blair would relax and see that it wouldn't be all that different from the way it had always been. As the experienced officer, Jim would take the lead and Blair would back him up, that's the way it would go. Just like before, he'd do all in his power to keep Sandburg safe.

Unconsciously, the detective didn't even realize he wasn't really adjusting to the new reality. Blair wasn't going to be a civilian, someone who could be ordered to stay in the truck, out of the way of danger, not that he'd listened all that well anyway. Jim wouldn't be able to treat him the same way in the hopes of keeping him safe. The rules would change once Blair graduated, and though Blair knew that, and Simon knew it, and everyone else on the squad knew it, Jim hadn't really figured that part out yet.

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

At first, the instructors had been decidedly cool towards him, wondering how a guy who'd lied to the world and abused his friendship with a police officer to write such incredible fiction without even bothering to change the detective's name, had ever managed to be accepted to the Academy. Not only accepted, but given the special dispensation of not having to cut his hair. It didn't add up. Seasoned officers with curious minds, they checked their own sources in the department and speculated about the infamous 'Sentinel' dissertation privately and amongst themselves. Ellison had been named 'Policeman of the Year' more than once, routinely actually, both before and after Sandburg had been working with him as an unofficial observer. There was no doubt that Ellison was an outstanding cop…but he'd pulled off some truly amazing stunts in the last few years…the 'Sandburg years' as they came to refer to them in their quiet speculative conversations in the staff coffee room. And, it was an open rumour that the 'righteous' Ellison couldn't wait to get his 'partner' back, refusing to work with anyone else until Sandburg graduated and was assigned to the Major Crimes Unit, which didn't square with someone who had supposedly abused his trust. Added to all of that, so far as they knew him and some of them knew him very well, Simon Banks was no fool. If he was willing to jump Sandburg over any number of other well qualified, experienced and deserving officers in order to give him a gold shield right out of the Academy…well, it would be a first.

Actually, it was damned near unbelievable.

All of which meant that Blair Sandburg wasn't all that he seemed in the public eye.

Nor did it take them long to be personally impressed with his clear talents and hard work. No doubt about it, he was going to make an outstanding cop. Which only made them wonder more about the story behind the story that had caused such a stir a few short weeks ago. Some of them even tried to get Sandburg to talk about it, veiled enquiries to learn the truth about this 'Sentinel' business, but Sandburg froze them out. His face would go all blank and pale as he politely, but resolutely, refused any comment on what had occurred. All he'd say was that he'd made a mistake but he hoped he'd learned from it…and that was that.

Which only made them all the more certain that there was a great deal more to the truth than what most people might ever know. Professionals, they kept their opinions to themselves within their own closed circle, but they'd be watching what this crime team would accomplish once Sandburg graduated. "Should make for interesting times in the city," one quipped to the others during one of those speculative discussions, "If the bad guys have any sense, they'll move out of town while they still have the freedom to get away." His colleagues chuckled at his wry observation…but they were also in complete accord.

Nor were the instructors as oblivious as Blair thought them to be with respect to the nastiness he was experiencing from some of the other cadets. With narrowed eyes and silent appraisal, they watched those who couldn't seem to accept the man on his own terms, letting their biases and prejudices cloud their judgment of a fellow cadet who did nothing to earn their personal rancor. As the weeks went by, several of the troublemakers were surprised to find themselves deemed 'unsatisfactory' and summarily dismissed from the Academy. Blind to their own shortcomings, they couldn't see that their attitudes spelled trouble, that they'd be dangerous on the streets, abusing their power in order to intimidate others. Though nothing was ever said that would let them know the decisions were at least in part influenced by their treatment of Sandburg, many resented the fact that he got to stay while they were kicked out…and some, one of whom was Mallory, would nurse their grievance with a grim and implacable patience, holding him in their minds as the symbol of the injustice done to them. One day Sandburg would get his due. And what a sweet day that would be.

The weeks wore on.

Sandburg kept his head down and did all that he could do to get through it as successfully as possible. Once he graduated, he was all too conscious of the responsibilities he would bear as an armed officer of the law…he intended to be as ready as humanly possible to fulfill those responsibilities and repay the trust all the members of the Major Crimes Unit had in him.

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

About a month after Blair had entered the Academy, William Ellison called his son, to report that he'd held the conversations they'd discussed.

"Do you think it will do any good?" Jim asked. "Does your lawyer think there's any kind of case here of unlawful dismissal or whatever they call it when a student is expelled?"

His father sighed as he replied, "I don't know, Jimmy. My lawyer wrote up a letter for me to send to the Chancellor with thinly veiled threats of a possible lawsuit, but we haven't gotten any response other than they've received my letter and are 'considering the matter'. As for the folks I know on the Board of Trustees, well, they listened politely to my concerns but didn't say much. I'm afraid there isn't much we can do."

"I understand, Dad…thanks for trying," Jim had replied.

Thinking back on the conversation later, Ellison wondered at the mixed emotions he felt. Part of him really wanted Blair to be vindicated, to have a chance at obtaining the degree he so richly deserved. But, part of him was relieved. If Sandburg got his Ph.D., he might want to pursue another career…it would only make sense if he got the necessary academic credentials. It was what he'd trained the greater part of his life for, being a professor, researching, teaching. Ruthlessly, he pushed away a nagging anxiety that the university officials might well wonder why his father had attempted to lend Blair support…an odd thing for the man to do given his son's reputation was supposedly compromised by a document reputed to be false. Sighing, Jim rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head at his seemingly limitless capacity to be selfish, but God, he missed having Blair with him at work. Still, it was all out of his hands, he consoled himself to mute the guilt he was feeling. His father had tried and there was nothing more to be done. Letting it go, he was just glad he hadn't raised Blair's hopes since the situation with the university did, indeed, seem to be irreparable.

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

One morning, about an hour after Sandburg had left, Jim headed down to his truck and was surprised to see the old battered Volvo still in its slot. Frowning, he noticed the tires were flat…all of them. Squatting to investigate, he ran his fingers over the treads, and found the puncture holes. Thoughtfully, he flipped open his cell and called their garage to see if Sandburg had arranged for new tires, unsurprised to learn they'd not heard anything from his roommate. Explaining the situation, Ellison ordered new tires to be charged to his account and directed that they be installed that day. As he talked, he scanned the other cars in the area and he didn't feel any better when he noticed that all of their tires appeared to be intact. A prank? Simple vandalism? Maybe.

But, maybe not.

That evening, Blair was surprised on his return to find his car once again whole and ready for use. Smiling to himself, he didn't have to guess that his best friend had found the damage and seen to the repairs. There hadn't been time that morning for him to do anything but sprint for the bus, cursing under his breath at the destructive tendencies of disaffected youth and muttering to himself about his bad luck in ending up the random target. Nor had there been time that day to call the garage himself and he'd thought he'd have to deal with it when he got home. He was tired and it was a relief to see the work had already been done.

"Thanks, Jim!" he called gratefully as he bounded into the loft, tossing his pack of books onto the floor by the sofa. "I see you got my tires replaced."

"Uh huh," Ellison grunted from the kitchen where he was busy chopping up the makings of a salad.

Going to the fridge, Blair snagged a beer for himself, and seeing that Jim didn't have one, pulled one out for his friend as well. "I really appreciate it, man. How much do I owe you?"

"We'll work that out once you have a paycheck coming in, Chief. Don't worry about it right now, okay?" Ellison replied, looking up and glad to see the grin on Blair's face and the agreeable nod. He'd been afraid of an argument about the money and he knew Sandburg didn't have two cents to rub together at that point. It was a relief to know Blair could accept a little help without making a big deal out of it. "So, why your car, Sandburg?" he asked, concern darkening his eyes.

Blair just shrugged as he moved to the stove to stir the tomato sauce that was simmering gently. "Who knows, man? Bad karma? Maybe whoever did it doesn't like classic cars," he replied.

Jim snorted at that. "Classic cars? Give me a break," he replied with the disparaging tone he reserved for the old Volvo.

Blair gave a short bark of laughter then moved to the counter to pull the fresh Italian bread Jim had picked up from the bakery downstairs from its paper wrapper. Slicing it and coating the halves with olive oil and herbs, he changed the subject. "So, how are things down at the station?"

"Oh, you know, the usual…some gang heisting semis loaded with military weapons destined for the base outside of town, word that a major drug deal is going to go down sometime soon, miscellaneous threats against prominent citizens…this and that," Ellison replied with a shrug as he loaded the rabbit food into a large bowl.

"'This and that,'" Blair snorted, "right. Any of those sound like they could be pretty hairy, Jim."

Not fooled by the nonchalance, Jim laid a hand on Blair's shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. "Don't worry about it, Chief. I'm being careful…I'll be fine," he said quietly. Blair nodded but didn't look up at him. Biting his lip, Ellison moved away to take plates from the cupboard and set the table. He knew all too well how hard Blair was finding it to not be able to be there in case he was needed, how much his roommate worried when he couldn't be present to provide backup. But, Blair had enough on his plate right now. He looked tired and he wasn't sleeping enough. No way could he be finding the Academy's curriculum all that difficult, so Jim knew Blair was driving himself to a level of unachievable perfection. The last thing he needed right now was to worry about errant Sentinel senses or the everyday hazards of life on the job as a detective in the Major Crimes Unit.

Silently, Jim drained the noodles and dished up their simple meal. When they were seated across from one another, he said, "You need to ease up on yourself, Chief…you're attacking your studies like they were a life and death issue…."

"They are," Blair interjected without apology. He looked up and caught Jim's pained expression and shook his head as he helped himself to the salad. "Look, I know you think I'm too intense about it all, but…Jim, it could be life or death. Yours. Some civilian. Another cop. I just want to be sure I'm ready when I graduate, that's all."

"I know, Sandburg…but you were a great detective before you started. You won't do anybody any good if you work yourself to death before you even hit the streets," Jim counseled as he reached for the cheese and shook copious amounts of it over his plate.

Blair eyed the flakes of solid cholesterol with disfavour but refrained from verbal comment. "I'm fine, don't worry so much, Mom," he replied, then cut Jim a quick glance accompanied by a fleeting grin to let his friend know it was the truth. He really was fine and there was nothing to worry about.

"Eat your dinner, Sandburg," Jim replied severely…but then he grinned back.

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

The next morning, they went downstairs together, and found that someone had taken what looked like a sledgehammer to the windshield of Sandburg's car. A hole was punched through the glass, cracks radiating from it across the entire span of the windshield and tiny shards of shattered crystal littered the interior of the vehicle.

"Aw, man," Blair groaned under his breath, his tone that of an anguished wail. His insurance rates were already high enough. He really did not need this.

"You know, Chief, I think you've managed to seriously annoy someone," Ellison observed. But, though his words and tone were mild, inside his gut clenched. This wasn't random violence.

Someone was sending Blair a message.

"You think?" Blair asked with disgust, but then shook his head. "No…really…who'd do this?"

"I don't know, Chief," Jim responded as he pulled out his cell to call the garage and arrange the tow and repairs while his eyes scanned the area searching for whomever might be watching to enjoy the reaction to the vandalism. But he didn't see anyone who looked the least bit suspicious…just the usual early morning traffic and pedestrians heading to work. Flipping his cell closed after the conversation with the mechanic, Ellison turned to Blair to resume the one they'd been having. "You haven't been anywhere but here and the Academy for weeks. Since I didn't do this, or slash your tires, who at the Academy would attack you like this?"

Shaking his head, Blair sighed. "No one I can think of. I mean…there're've been a few people who took exception to me being there after…well, you know. But, that's just stuff, man, to be expected. Maybe this is just random vandalism."

Jim winced at that. He wondered how much crap Blair had had to put up with that he was unaware of, just because it was 'to be expected'. But, his tone as he replied held nothing of his own pain at those simple words or why Blair just took it as a given. Indeed, in his attempt to hide his own anguish, to spare Blair that at least, he sounded almost gruff. "C'mon, Sandburg, you're supposed to be a detective. Think about it. Do you see any other cars around here with slashed tires or smashed windshields? So who's doing this? Who's trying to send you a message?"

His own eyes hardening at the tone and the criticism, Blair snapped, "I don't know, Jim. Let's just drop it, all right? I have to catch the bus or I'll be late." Without another word, Blair turned and jogged away.

Ellison opened his mouth to apologize for his roughness, to call him back and offer him a ride, but then he let it go. The fact was, he had no intention of 'dropping it'. Whether Blair wanted to face it or not, he'd made an enemy…one who snuck around in the dark and exhibited violent tendencies. Not a good enemy to have. Turning back to the Volvo, Ellison examined the car and the ground around it, looking for any clues he could find. But the gravel beneath his feet and the battered exterior of the old car gave up no secrets. When he sniffed the air, he could detect no foreign or unusual traces of scent. With his white noise generator up in his bedroom, he'd heard nothing during the night. Whoever had done this hadn't left any clues behind.

Which meant this enemy was either lucky or dangerous…neither of which was reassuring to the Sentinel.

However, when there were no further incidents in the weeks following, Ellison allowed himself to hope that it might have just been a passing flare of anger that had burned itself out…though he was still bothered that he had no idea of who or why someone had exhibited such violence toward his best friend.

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

A week before classes at the Academy were finally finished, Blair got home before Jim. Pulling the mail from their box, he carried it upstairs while he idly sorted through it. However, one envelope caused him to pause in mid-step. It was from the Chancellor's Office, Rainier University. Frowning, wondering why she'd be writing to him, his mind reviewed the last few hours he'd spent there, cleaning out his office, returning books and artifacts to the library. He couldn't think of anything he'd overlooked or left behind. Idly, he wondered if he was going to be sued for having caused the institution embarrassment as he trudged up the stairs, not eager to find out.

Once inside the loft, he tossed the other mail along with his cap on the table, and took a deep breath before slitting open the envelope. He unfolded the single page of heavy stationary, and scanned the missive, his eyes widening with incredulity as he read. 'I can't believe it,' he murmured as he slowed down and started again from the top.

'Dear Mr. Sandburg, A review of events suggests that the University may have acted precipitously in severing our connection with you. Since you did not, in fact, submit the document purported to be your dissertation for publication and never at any time personally attested to its validity, it has been determined that the incident, however distasteful, was not your full responsibility.

However, your admission to having written the document and your public assertion that it was fraudulent did, indeed, bring embarrassment upon this institution and your association with Rainier University cannot be contemplated in the long term.

Nevertheless, a decision has been reached to offer you the opportunity to submit a dissertation in support of your status as a candidate for a doctorate of philosophy in your field of study, Anthropology. If you wish to take advantage of this opportunity, please submit said document for review within ten days to your former advisor, Dr. Elijah Stoddard. Given the number of years that you were associated with this institution, and the multiple extensions you received toward the completion of this documentary requirement for graduation, this should be sufficient time for you to provide evidence of your scholarship. If you fail to do so, this opportunity will expire.

Should Dr. Stoddard find the document worthy of verbal defence, he will advise you accordingly in the near future.'

For a moment, Blair stood in stunned silence, the sheet of paper trembling in his hands. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to take a deep breath, then a second and third, grounding himself, restoring himself to some semblance of calm.

They were giving him another chance. Briefly, he wondered why. But, then, as the reality of it sank in, he discovered he didn't care.

His eyes lifted from the letter to gaze through the balcony windows to the sky beyond as a wordless, overwhelming sense of gratitude filled his soul. Then, carefully folding the letter and returning it to its envelope, he went to his room and turning on his laptop, he found and inserted the diskette on which he'd stored, 'The Thin Blue Line by Blair Sandburg'. Flipping on the printer, he tapped in the command and waited for the lengthy document to be produced on the small portable printer on the side of his desk. Once it was finished, he carefully placed it in an envelope, and then left the loft to head to the printer down the street. The formal submission of a proposed dissertation required five appropriately bound copies.

They'd given him ten days thinking he'd never be able to meet the deadline and their responsibilities would be met without any further contact with him. But, he'd have the necessary copies on his advisor's desk before another ten hours had passed.

Within two hours, he had returned from the university, where he'd left the bound documents in a large envelope with administration for overnight delivery to his advisor's office and had changed out of his uniform. By the time Ellison got home, Blair was finishing the preparation of a quick but substantial meal. All the while he'd been preparing it, Sandburg had debated telling Jim about this incredible turn of events. But, he hesitated, still uncertain that he'd get a fair hearing. He might not even be granted the opportunity of a verbal defence, and even if he was, there was no guarantee they'd accept the dissertation and grant him his doctorate. No, better to keep this to himself for now. It wouldn't change anything, not really. He'd still be Jim's partner. It would just be a major vindication of his academic reputation and it would finally bring closure to all of those years of effort and dreams. That's all…no big deal. Right?

Despite his decision, he couldn't hide all trace of his excitement. So, it was no surprise when Jim picked up on it and asked what was going on. Grinning as he dished up their meal, Blair simply said, "Nothing special. I guess I'm just excited to know I'm almost through all the Academy hoops. One more week, man. Just one more week and then graduation a week after that…and you have yourself a partner again."

Smiling at Blair's excitement at the idea of returning to work as his full-fledged partner, Jim replied warmly, "Well, when you put it like that…I guess it's reason enough to be excited. I'm looking forward to having you back, Chief, more than you know."

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

The week flew by, and in anticipation of receiving his diploma, Blair headed into the station with Jim the following week to begin reading up on the current cases, so he'd be ready to jump into full action as soon as he had the authority to do so. Everyone welcomed him back with unbridled enthusiasm, everyone in Major Crimes, that is. If there were more than a few sidelong looks from others in the department, a few muttered disparaging comments, Blair ignored them. They were only to be expected and he'd just have to live with it until the novelty of his presence wore off. When he sensed Jim stiffen after having also overheard a sarcastic slur, he placed his hand on his friend's arm as he murmured, "Let it go. They'll get used to me in time. They did before."

Jim threw him an aggravated look, his eyes clouded with anger and concern, but he sighed. Sandburg was right. If he made a big deal of it, the attitudes would only harden. But damn, he was tired of the crap Blair had to endure. It was so very far from what Sandburg deserved.

Within a couple of days, Blair noticed that while many still gave him a wide berth, or dealt with him coolly when they had to do so, the evident looks and comments of disparagement and bitter annoyance at having to work with 'a liar and a fraud' had ceased. Thoughtfully, he pondered that, knowing it hadn't just 'blown over', not that quickly. But, when he challenged Jim as to whether he'd intervened somehow, Ellison just raised his hands, his face a picture of innocence as he denied having done or said anything…much as he had very much wanted to. The detective saw no reason to tell his young partner that he hadn't had to do or say anything. The other members of the Major Crimes Unit, including their Captain, had done and said all that had been required to bring enlightenment to anyone who imagined they could get away with criticizing their newest team member.

The graduation ceremony was held the following Saturday, a bright clear June day, the clouds and incessant drizzle absent as if even the weather was celebrating this auspicious event. Everyone from Major Crimes was there, and Blair was touched to see William and Steven Ellison slip into the back row. Only his mother was absent, but he hadn't expected her to celebrate his initiation into the field of law enforcement. She'd called the night before, to congratulate him, though he could tell the words were a little forced. Still, he appreciated the gesture…it had been more than he'd expected.

Jim and the others were all grinning with clear pride and jubilation that this day had finally come as they each took their seats in a row near the center of the auditorium at the Academy. They'd known he'd achieve, even more, that he'd excel. But Blair had not given them a clue as to just how very well he had excelled. The formal speeches of welcome, and of the importance of this event, of the work these men and women would do in the years ahead gave way to the presentation of the diplomas to each individual cadet as their names were called. As that part of the program was concluded, the members of the graduating class stood and were collectively applauded by the guests and by the dignitaries on the stage. Then came the presentation of awards for outstanding achievement in several areas of the curriculum: academic studies, marksmanship, physical training, and leadership.

As that stage of the program was reached, Commissioner Owens, who routinely presented those awards, rose to move to the microphone. Placing his large hands on either side of the podium, the man who ultimately led the Cascade Police looked out over the gathered assembly. "I have the pleasure of recognizing excellence in this year's class of cadets," he began, "but instead of presenting each award separately, this year I want to first share with you what the achievement each award represents. The Academic Studies Award is given to the cadet who scored the highest marks in their studies across the board in all subjects, and this year, the recipient not only achieved this distinction through an averaging of their marks, but also did indeed score the highest grade in every single subject. The Marksmanship Award is self-explanatory, and this year's recipient has far exceeded the standards required even of the best members of our Special Weapons and Tactics Teams. The Physical Training Award goes to the cadet who is best able to both defend himself and others in unarmed combat when that is required to subdue a suspect or the perpetrator of a crime. And, finally, the Leadership Award is given to that cadet who most exemplifies the qualities we seek in our ranks…service, dedication, commitment, professionalism and the elusive quality to inspire others to follow his or her example. Each and every one of these awards is a major achievement of which the recipient may be rightly proud. It is rare, indeed, that one individual should be chosen to receive them all, but this year I am privileged to honour such unique and extraordinary achievement."

The Commissioner paused a moment to let the expectant silence settle over the assembly, then called out with a broad smile, "Officer Blair Sandburg, please stand and come forward."

There was a collective gasp in the auditorium. Some because they remembered what had occurred less than three months before and could scarcely believe such an individual could be so honoured. Others, most notably those in the center row and two men in the back, because of the pride that fairly burst from them, and then they were clapping loudly and standing to show their respect and admiration. Their example was soon followed by others, until even those who were uncomfortable doing so stood, conscious of the discomfort they'd feel if they remained in their seats when so many others were applauding the unique and overwhelming achievement of this single individual.

Blair was simply dumbfounded.

He'd known he'd done well because he'd been asked to speak as valedictorian, and he'd been looking forward to seeing Jim's pleased surprise when he stood for that role. But, he'd had no idea that this singular honour was to be bestowed upon him. For a moment, he sat frozen, but as the applause started and his enthusiastic colleagues in the ranks of the graduating cadets thumped his back, shouting their congratulations, he made it to his feet and then up the stairs to the stage. When he reached the Commissioner, who had him turn and face the standing ovation, he blushed and trembled with mingled embarrassment and joy.

"Well done, Sandburg," the Commissioner was saying as he reached to shake Blair's hand. "It's good to know that you'll be a member of my force in two days time. Congratulations."

"Thank you, sir," Blair replied with suitable formality and decorum as he shook the much taller man's hand. The Commissioner then handed him his four crystal awards, each inscribed with the title of the award and his name, and then there was a pause while the professional photographer snapped the requisite pictures to immortalize the moment.

Keeping one hand on Blair's shoulder, the Commissioner turned back to the crowd. Leaning toward the microphone, he said, "I'm very pleased to now turn the podium over to this year's class valedictorian, Officer Blair Sandburg."

Again, there was a thunderous burst of applause. Blair moved to the podium and took a moment to place the awards on the rim in front of him. Then he raised his hands to quiet the crowd. Clearing his throat, taking a deep breath, he began, his gaze shifting over the crowd, and then his fellow graduates, as he spoke,

"I am honoured to have this opportunity to speak on behalf of all of my colleagues in this graduating class. When we first entered the doors of this Academy, we came from different walks of life and with different motivations for wanting to join the law enforcement community of Cascade. We were strangers to one another, but we had one thing in common: the determination to walk out of these same doors as police officers. Over the past few weeks, we have come to know and to respect one another…and I can assure you that we will collectively serve with commitment and excellence. I am privileged to be a member of this group and I hold each one in high regard. I'd trust any of them with my life…and you can be assured that you could as well."

Blair's gaze rose to fasten on the middle row of the crowd as he continued, "But…there's something else I want to share with you and that's our sense of privilege to be invited to be members of a community of men and women who dedicate their lives to the service of others, to the protection of the innocent and the vulnerable, and to the laws that make our community a secure place to live and raise our families. The men and women who choose to serve as police officers are a breed apart. Their courage, integrity, compassion and professionalism give them the strength to face great challenges and personal danger, usually in obscurity, often without the respect they so richly deserve from all of us, every single day of their lives. They serve and protect, not to receive acclaim or gratitude, but because it's the right thing, the necessary thing, to do. They serve and protect with humility, with a sense of profound responsibility and with an excellence that is awe-inspiring to anyone who takes the time to really pay attention, to notice what they give and achieve."

Turning his head, he glanced at the seated ranks of the Academy staff on the stage as he continued, "I've been asked by my colleagues to thank our instructors for so rigorously preparing us to assume our new responsibilities, to make us as ready as they could to be successful in our new careers. And, believe me, I'm sure there were many days when our instructors were certain that they were facing an impossible task."

Blair paused to let the murmur of laughter fade. Then, his voice ringing out with clear sincerity as he looked out across the crowd, he concluded, "But our instructors have served us, and we hope through us, you, well. We are as ready as they can make us to take our places, to do our jobs with distinction." Once again, his gaze sought Simon, and then he focused on Jim as he continued, "Finally, on behalf of all of us in this class, let me assure you that we are truly grateful to be accepted into the ranks of the Cascade Police Department, and we each pledge ourselves to win your trust and confidence, to be worthy of the honour bestowed upon us here today. Those of you here, who already serve and protect, know that we are eager to stand with each of you, to follow your lead, to watch your back, to learn from your experience and to make you proud of our contributions." Lifting his gaze to once again encompass the entire audience, his voice ringing with passion, he uttered his closing remarks, "Those of you who are not police officers, know that we pledge this to you…we will serve and protect you to the best of our ability, even at the cost of our own lives if that be the required price. And, we'll do so gladly… because you're worth it and because it's our privilege and our duty. Thank you, all of you, for being here today to celebrate the beginning of our new careers and lifelong commitment to law enforcement."

As Blair stepped back from the podium, there was a moment of silence and then thunderous applause once again broke out across the gathered assembly, echoed by the ranks of instructors and officials sitting behind him on the stage. He bowed his head briefly toward the audience, then turned and saluted those on the stage before gathering his awards and descending to once again take his seat.

Those members of the crowd who were currently or formerly serving officers of the law had been touched by Blair's tribute to them. Men and women toughened by life on the streets, too often tired and cynical, felt their chests constrict and lumps form in their throats while their eyes misted at his words of approbation and respect. Too many had known too little of such acknowledgment throughout the course of their careers, but more, they were touched by the passion and sincerity that echoed their own, that was the foundation of their own commitment to serve and protect. Though they'd have gladly cut out their own tongues before admitting to any sentimentality, the vows made by Sandburg on behalf of his colleagues and the collective sense of privilege these young people felt to be joining their ranks humbled them and made them proud at the same time, and each vowed to look out for each and every one of them when they hit the streets. Good kids. All of them.

Those who were not police officers were made thoughtful by Sandburg's words, and the vow he made on behalf of the entire class, to protect even if it meant their lives. It was a profound and moving commitment, and the truth of what that cost might one day be was sobering, even frightening, because these bright young officers were well loved by those who came to celebrate with them today. They looked at the graduating class with new respect for the courage it took to wear a badge, to face what they pledged to do, every single day.

Jim felt his heart filled to overflowing with pride for his best friend as Blair received his awards and then captured the audience with his voice and eyes, with the passion that radiated from him. But, as he listened while Blair gazed into his eyes, and then heard the last ringing vow, his heart chilled and he looked away, his throat tight. Blinking, he drove away the burning in his eyes and took a deep breath to settle his emotions, to rein in the fear those words provoked in his soul. Silently, turning his intense gaze back to Blair, he made his own vow. Not you, Blair Sandburg. I swear to you, this job will not cost your life…so long as I live I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.

The ceremony concluded and the celebrations began, first with a formal reception at the Academy. But, as they made their way from the auditorium, Blair's heart sank when he saw the reporters and cameramen converging upon them. He shouldn't have been surprised, he told himself sadly as he straightened his back and schooled his features, unconsciously cloaking himself in dignity in readiness for the assault. However, before the two groups converged, Commissioner Owens stepped forward between them, evidently quite deliberately to run interference.

The media wasted no time in peppering him with questions while the lights of the cameras blazed into his eyes. "Commissioner, how do you account for someone who is a self-admitted liar and fraud being allowed into this Academy, and from what we've observed today, being held up as some kind of example? Surely the citizens of Cascade can expect better than that from the law enforcement community they depend upon," reporter Don Haas shouted out with a noticeable sneer of contempt.

Having gotten the question he wanted, Commissioner Owens wasted no time in answering it. "Thank you for asking that question. You have given me the opportunity to address some misconceptions and deliberate misrepresentations by the media that have stood on the record for far too long already. Mr. Sandburg, in fact, never submitted the supposed dissertation to the University and held the press conference in order to prevent the media frenzy from further interfering in an ongoing police operation. Media frenzy, let me remind you, that had already cost the police their opportunity to capture an assassin before he had the opportunity to wound several police officers. With the assassin still at large it was vital that the media cease hounding the lead detective on the case. That Mr. Sandburg was obliged to risk his reputation and academic career in order to halt the irresponsible behaviour of many members of the media is worthy of discussion, if not at the present time. Suffice it to say that Mr. Sandburg's willingness to incur public disapprobation in order to protect the men and women of the Cascade police department was a significant factor in our decision to grant him entrance into the Academy. That decision resulted in Mr. Sandburg's graduating as the number one cadet in his class in all areas of achievement. Now, I trust that will answer the questions you have for today and you will want to allow these young people, their families and their friends, to celebrate this occasion, their achievement and their commitment to the citizens of Cascade, as they so richly deserve."

The reporters were flummoxed.

He was accusing them of irresponsibility and culpability in the destruction of Sandburg's academic career and had offered a completely unheard until now explanation of the infamous press conference. With visions of lawsuits dancing in their heads as they reflected that they had known very well that the document had been released without permission and had never been claimed as authoritative, they decided that perhaps there were no more questions for the day. Discretion being the better part of valour, cameras were turned off and the crowd of media representatives faded away. This story just wasn't worth the risks…in fact, maybe there wasn't much of story at all in this annual graduation of police cadets. The more hostile members of the media community grumbled that it was no doubt a deliberate strategy by the police officials to have waited until now to share this unexpected explanation of the events last spring to score off them and make them look like fools.

Well pleased with the reaction he'd gotten, and with his staff who had prepared his remarks so adroitly in anticipation of this confrontation, the Commissioner turned his back on the media and reached out to once again shake Blair's hand as he said, "Let me congratulate you again, Blair, on an outstanding achievement and for all that you have contributed to our department already. It's good to know that a fine young officer like you will be officially joining our Major Crimes Unit."

Blown away by what had just happened, flushing with pleased embarrassment at the Commissioner's praise, Blair could do scarcely more than murmur, "Thank you, sir. I'm grateful for the opportunity."

Nodding complacently, Owens turned to shake Simon's hand, waved generally at the rest and took his leave, knowing that his presence inhibited their right to their personal celebration of the day. Shortly thereafter, the official reception ended and the crowd broke up as each group left to pursue their own private salute to the new officer they were honouring that day.

Simon had decided to hold their celebration in his home and it went well into the night as the deliriously happy and disgustingly proud members of the Major Crimes Unit toasted Blair in a manner that overwhelmed him with its enthusiasm and generosity. There were gifts, some serious and some amusing, all given with love. A leather shoulder holster, along with a holster for his belt and one for his ankle. "What, you guys expect me to keep dropping my weapon and having to reach for another?" he joked as he opened them in succession. A new cell phone, a palm pilot, a watch etched with the date of his graduation, shampoo and conditioner in tribute to his long curls, a 'Major Crimes Unit' baseball cap and sweatshirt, and pretty pastel ribbons for his hair. None of the gifts were individually given, but were presented from the unit as a whole, because it was with unanimity that they were welcoming him formally to their ranks.

After Blair had opened the last gift, blushing softly with gratitude, the light of love blazing from his eyes, he looked around at each of them as he said quietly, "Thank you. I can't ever tell you how much your support and friendship has meant, will always mean, to me." His voice cracked and he had to take a breath and blink before he continued, "I meant every word I said up there on that stage today, but most of all, I meant how grateful and honoured I feel to be accepted by all of you. I promise…I'll never let you down… or give you reason to be anything but proud of what I contribute to this team."

Simon stood then and reached into his pocket, pulling out a slim black leather folder. "We're going to hold you to that, Sandburg, because, starting right now, you are Detective Blair Sandburg, serving with the Major Crimes Unit, Cascade Police Department. Congratulations." Simon opened the wallet to reveal the Gold Shield inscribed with Blair's name, and then handed it to the young man who had risen to his feet to accept it.

While the others cheered and reached to pound him on the back, Blair took the badge and stared at it silently for a long moment. Then, he raised eyes glistening with tears to Simon's gaze as he murmured, his voice thick with emotion, "Thank you, Simon…thank you for everything." And then, typically Blair, he moved forward and embraced the older man in a tight hug.

"Now, now, Sandburg," Simon said amidst the hoots and hollers of his team, "let's not get carried away." Patting the younger man awkwardly on the back, he added with mock severity, "And, remember, you're supposed to call me 'sir'!"

"Yes, sir," Blair replied, without a trace of laughter, as he stood back and away. "But, if I slip up from time to time, please don't think it a sign of disrespect. Because I do respect you, not just your position…you."

Touched, Simon gave him a short nod and a tight smile before looking away to gather his own emotions. "So, who needs a drink?" he called out, to get the party back on track. The night was supposed to be fun, not overwrought with emotion.

Blair felt a hand on his back and turned to look up into Jim's clear gaze. "Congratulations, Chief," Ellison said quietly as he squeezed his best friend's shoulder. "You know I've always been proud of you, but you really out did yourself today. And, well, you know how glad I am to know you're my partner…I've been really looking forward to this day…to know that nobody can revoke this pass." As he spoke, Jim tapped the shield in Blair's hands.

"Thanks, Jim," Blair said as he moved to hug his partner tightly, warmed to feel Jim hugging him right back. "I'm glad, too," he murmured, smiling, feeling at peace with the world. He'd won the right to stand by Jim, as his partner, his friend and his guide. For the first time in four years, he could relax with the knowledge that now nothing could prevent him from taking his place by Jim's side, guarding his back, protecting him from the dangers he so bravely and selflessly faced all the days of his life.

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

Chapter Two: Love…Hopes All Things

Both roommates were in fine good humour as they started their first day as official partners. Jim had risen early to make an elaborate breakfast, only to meet Blair coming out of his room at the foot of the stairs, intent upon the same mission. Laughing, they pitched in together, squeezing fresh juice, mixing up the pancakes, chopping a fruit salad, grinding the coffee and setting it to perk, the rich aromas mingling in the air around them. Tomorrow, they'd go back to cereal, because it was quick and easy. But today, well, today was special.

They went to the station together in Jim's truck since there was no point, they thought, in taking separate vehicles. It would save on gas and parking costs and they could discuss cases, or what they wanted for dinner or needed at the store on the way to and fro…very efficient. Not even the overcast skies or the cool drizzle of rain mixed with tendrils of fog could dispel their sense of contentment, that all was right with the world. Looking over at Sandburg, Jim could believe that the kid had no regrets. A smile danced on the younger man's lips, a smile of anticipation and clear happiness, and his eyes were alight with energy and laughter. Blair could tell from Jim's air of quiet contentment that he was relaxed and happy as well, with no doubts about having a rookie for a full-fledged partner. They both figured that it was all going to work out perfectly. If the 'objective researcher' voice in Blair's mind whispered that such was the state of euphoria that it blinds one to the reality that nothing is ever perfect, its faint murmur was lost in the tumult of his joy in the day and his sense of peaceful contentment.

When they arrived, Blair was surprised and pleased to discover desks had been rearranged over the weekend to provide his own working space next to Jim's desk. There was a brass plaque with his name on it, a fresh blotter and all the office supplies he needed to get started. He fairly glowed with gratitude, and made certain to thank Rhonda for having stocked up the desk and gotten the name plaque ordered in time for it to be displayed on his first official day at work. 'Detective Blair Sandburg,' he thought to himself. 'Has a nice ring to it!' Everyone greeted him warmly and he settled down to work with the feeling of truly belonging. If he was scared of screwing up, and just a tad nervous about his new role, he hid it well, but both Jim and Joel picked up the vibes as the day wore on…eyes that were a little too bright, a smile that wavered when he thought no one was actually watching, energy that was just short of being frenetic.

"Relax, Chief," Jim murmured as he dropped a cup of coffee off at Blair's desk. "You don't have to do everything in one day…"

"Yeah, but there're so many calls to make to follow up on the weapons' trail, man," Blair countered, as he reached for the mug and blew on it with a mumbled, "Thanks, but I could have gotten this…you just had to ask."

"I know…but I don't mind getting my own, and yours, too, from time to time," Jim replied with an indulgent smile. Perching on the corner of Blair's desk, he sipped his own beverage, mindful of its heat, as he asked, "So, what do you make of these hijacks? They've been intermittent, unpredictable…we haven't been able to get a handle on them."

Pulling his glasses off, Blair sat back, his mug cradled in his hands. Nodding thoughtfully, having read the files the week before, he could see the problem. "There are so many possibilities…a leak from inside has to be part of it. But, why only on some of the shipments? And, is the leak with the military or the trucking company that holds the transportation contract? Is it logistics, dispatch, administration or one of the drivers? And, where are the weapons going? Where's the stuff being stockpiled…this is a scary lot of explosives and weapons to be hanging on to. What's the purpose…if we could figure that out, maybe we could work it from the other end…not who's leaking the information, but who's using it."

Jim nodded, a quizzical expression on his face, as he replied, "You've got the right questions, Chief. Now all we need to do is find the answers."

"Yeah," Blair murmured, sitting forward and setting his mug aside. "Which is why I've been making up these charts to correlate who is where when from the witness interviews, to see if there're any crossovers. So far, though, I haven't found much. I've also been working on this other list of possible purposes and targets…major upcoming events, political targets and civilian ones. Too many variables, man, way too many at this point."

"Which is why we haven't solved the case so far, Sandburg," Ellison agreed wearily as he stood and made his way to his own desk. Thinking about what Blair had said about possible targets, he reached over to snag that list and study it, adding some of his own ideas.

Toward the end of the day, Joel intercepted Blair as he returned from yet another foray into the labyrinth of internal administration.

"Hey, Blair, how's it going?" the older man asked with a warm smile.

"Oh, fine," Sandburg replied with a slight sigh. "I cannot believe how many forms have to be filled out whenever you start a new job, man. It's not like they don't have any information on me…I've been working here, well, sort of, for more than three years. They have all of this stuff, or most of it. I have to admit the 'beneficiary forms' and stuff like that are new…but, they've got my birthday, social insurance number, address, height, weight, physical description, routine urine test results…doesn't one admin officer talk to another down there? Aren't the files linked in a database? And they are so Byzantine, so slow…a guy could grow old standing in line down there."

Shaking his head in amusement at the fast flow of chatter and offended sense of efficiency, finally laughing out loud, Joel looped an arm around the younger man's shoulders as he commiserated. "Yeah, I know what you mean. But, that's not what I meant…how are you doing, Detective Sandburg?"

Blair paused in mid-tirade and blinked, then sighed as he relaxed. "Thanks for asking, Joel," he replied softly. "I'm doing okay…it's a little unnerving, you know. The responsibility. But…I'm excited about it all and…" he paused, then finished, "I'm really glad to be here. You guys have all been great…I can't tell you…"

"You don't have to 'tell' us anything," Joel cut in, his eyes warm with sincerity. "We're as glad to have you back as you are. Take it easy…you don't have a thing to prove to anyone, okay?"

Nodding, Blair swallowed and took a deep breath. "Okay," he murmured. "Thanks."

Joel slapped his back then returned to his desk while Blair went to his own, wishing he really didn't feel like he had to prove something…but he couldn't help it. Simon had gone out on a limb for him, Jim depended upon him and the others had all stood by him out of trust and friendship, even when the rest of the world had scorned him. He owed these guys…owed them all, big time. Sighing as he sat down, he plunged back into the files, his eyes darting from the paper records to the computer screen where he was trying to set up a program to identify causal relationships or even simple correlations. But, so far, nothing seemed to be connecting. Frowning, he wondered what they were missing…what factor or bit of information that as soon as they had it would seem so obvious. What angle had they all missed?

When Jim signaled it was time to go home, Blair was so engrossed in the problem he couldn't believe the day was already over. Reluctantly, he put his files away, turned off his computer and followed Ellison out of the office, nodding absentmindedly at the guy from the cleaning company as they passed in the hall. He didn't think anything of it when the guy didn't nod back…he'd been turning away, bending over his cart so he probably hadn't even noticed them passing by. The fleeting, only half conscious awareness of the custodian was gone as quickly as it came, his mind far more engaged with worrying over the myriad details of the case he was working on.

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

As the days of the first week slid by, Jim and Blair slipped back into the easy patterns they had known before, made even easier now that Sandburg wasn't flying between the university and the police station, juggling what amounted to two more than full time careers. They relaxed with it, enjoying one another's company and literally basking in the freedom to work together openly, with no constraints. Sandburg was finally getting enough sleep and he was rather surprised to notice what a difference that made in his energy levels…he could be alert, he discovered, without being frenetic like he'd been when he'd been going on adrenaline and not much else. The only frustration was that they weren't making any progress on their primary case, but both knew it took patience and perseverance, so the tension they both felt about it was manageable.

They were on their way home on Friday evening when Blair remembered they needed milk and a few other basic supplies and Jim figured it wouldn't hurt to fill up the tank of the truck. Rolling into a combination gas station/convenience store, Jim got out of the truck to handle the gas while Blair turned to the store. He froze when, through the glass walls, he saw an ill kempt, jumpy youth at the counter and what looked like a terror-stricken middle-aged woman nodding jerkily as she bent over the register.

"Jim," he called, his voice sharp but low. "I think we've got some trouble here. Possible robbery in progress."

Startled, Ellison looked up from where he'd been fiddling with the hose, inserting it into the tank, his eyes narrowing as he studied the scene playing out inside the store. "Right," he confirmed. "Stay here and call it in."

"Get real, man," Blair replied as he pulled his weapon out of the holster in the small of his back and, holding it to the side away from the store, he moved with a smooth unhurried gait until he was out of sight of the perpetrator. As he moved away, he whispered only loudly enough for a Sentinel to hear, "I'll take the back and distract him. You get to disarm him."

"Sandburg!" Ellison hissed, his heart thumping as he watched his best friend slip around the side of the building, his gun now held in the required position, arms straight, muzzle pointed to the earth, as he loped out of sight. Shaking his head as if trying to clear his thoughts, he pulled his own gun and held it to his side as he ambled toward the store's entrance, for all the world just another customer coming in to pay his bill. When he got inside, he pretended to be interested in some products on one of the shelves while out of the corner of his eye, he studied the disheveled youth, taking in the palpable air of jittery nerves, the twitching. He caught a glimpse of the gun the kid held close in front of his body, half hidden by his loose cloth jacket. His mouth dry, understanding the volatility of the situation, Ellison knew he needed to do this fast and clean before the kid lost it completely and ended up shooting either the woman behind the counter or a certain dangerously impetuous partner…said partner who was about to scare the shit out of the kid when he burst through the back door.

But, before he could move, the door to the back thumped open and Blair called out, "Police! Drop your weapon!"

The youth started like a trapped animal, turning in blind panic to snap off two wild shots toward the back door while Jim moved in from behind him, bringing the muzzle of his gun up against the kid's head, just behind his ear as he growled, "Police…drop it. NOW!"

The small handgun clattered to the floor as the youth began to sob in desperation. Ellison pushed him down, face first, until the kid was pressed over the countertop while he holstered his weapon and pulled out his cuffs. His movements were automatic, while he called out sharply, "Sandburg! I've got him. You alright?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, Jim, no sweat," Blair replied calmly as he took a quick look around the frame of the open door to ensure it was 'all clear' before moving forward, slipping his gun back into his holster as he entered. Studying the would-be thief, who was now standing a little hunched, his hands cuffed behind his back, Sandburg observed, "He looks strung out, man. He needs a hospital."

"They'll take care of him downtown," Ellison replied, his voice tight and a little distant. "Call for a patrol car to take him in and book him." And then he read the prisoner his rights.

Blair nodded, but first he turned to the woman behind the counter, who was pale and trembling like a leaf in the wind. "Hey, are you all right? It's okay…it's over. You're safe now," he soothed.

Her eyes wide, she turned her gaze to his and nodded as if she were in a daze, tears slipping unheeded down her face. Realizing she was in shock, Blair eased behind the counter and put an arm around her shoulders to give her a sense of stability and warmth as he pulled out his cell and hit the speed dial, calling in the back up. In minutes, two uniformed officers had arrived to take the woman's statement and transport the prisoner to the station.

Milk, basic supplies and gas forgotten, Ellison wheeled and stomped back to the truck. Sandburg, following on his heels, wasn't sure whether to grin with resignation or simply brace himself for the blast of fury. As soon as they'd reached the vehicle and were out of earshot of the others, Jim turned on Blair, looming over him as he grabbed the younger man's arm in a relentless, uncomfortably tight, grip. "What the hell did you think you were doing?" he seethed.

"My job, Jim," Blair snapped back, giving as good as he got, his eyes hard. He was prepared to take a lot of crap for a lot of things from Jim Ellison but not this. It was too important. This had to be settled, and it had to be settled now. "I'm a cop, remember?"

"I know what you are, Sandburg," the larger man stormed. "I told you to call for backup, to stay by the truck and you disregarded me, the senior officer, in case you hadn't noticed."

"Oh, I noticed, man," Blair steamed back. "But, tell me this…would you have told Simon, or Rafe or H. or Megan or Joel to stay by the truck and call for back up for a simple gas station heist with a single perpetrator? Huh? Well, would you?"

Ellison opened his mouth then snapped it back closed as he looked away. Relenting, Blair patted his arm as he said quietly, "I'm not a civilian anymore, Jim…I'm your partner, with all that that means. You can't order me to just stay in the truck anymore…you know that, man."

Ellison blew out a breath and willed himself to relax, easing his grip on Blair's arm but not letting go. Turning his head back to gaze down into his partner's earnest gaze, he shook his head. "I'm sorry…you're right. But, when you just took off, and I saw you with the gun in your hands…"

"Yeah, scary, isn't it," Blair quipped.

But, Ellison shook his head again as he swallowed. "I…I just want you safe, Chief…"

"I know, but you'll get used to it…hey, I had to get used to you going up against the bad guys," Blair soothed, moving his hand to gently pry Jim's fingers from his arm.

"I don't know if I can," Jim replied, amazed at the reality he hadn't seen coming…that he'd been denying unconsciously in the depths of his mind, again shaking his head dazedly as he looked away.

Blair's face grew stern as he answered with a determined strength, "Look at me, Jim." When his friend didn't immediately comply, Blair said again, more sharply, "LOOK at me!" When Jim's gaze met his own, Sandburg gave it to him straight. "Get over it, Jim. I'm a cop. I have a job to do just like you do, which means I now have responsibilities to the people of Cascade, not just to a certain hard-headed partner! I know what I'm doing…I won't take stupid chances and you're going to have to learn to trust me. Or this won't work. Understand?"

After a long moment of looking deeply into Sandburg's eyes and reading the determination there, Ellison nodded and took a step back. "Yeah, I understand. And, you're right. It was just…just a shock. I didn't think…just reacted. I'm sorry."

Blair rewarded him with a teasing grin. "It's okay," he said with easy good humour. "Simon said the first time you saw me with a gun in my hand it would blow you away." Turning to get back into the truck, he asked, "So, what do you want for dinner. I don't really feel like doing any more shopping tonight…how does Chinese sound?"

"Sounds fine, Chief," Ellison called back as he gave himself a mental shake and turned to circle the truck, thinking this new relationship was going to take some getting used to. "Sounds just fine."

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

Blair spared Jim the indignity of sharing their little confrontation with anyone else. But, Simon Banks was no fool, and when he saw the report of the arrest on his desk on Monday morning, he decided he was in the mood for a little amusement. Looking up from his desk and out into the bullpen, he bellowed, "Ellison, my office!"

Blair looked up and met Jim's gaze with a curious expression. When Jim shrugged, Blair stood to follow him in, figuring it probably had something to do with the case they were working on. But, when he got to the door, Simon stopped him with a steely gaze as he inquired with exaggerated forbearance, "Is your name 'Ellison'?"

"Uh…no, Captain," Blair stammered.

"Then, I didn't call you, did I?" Simon continued, really quite enjoying himself for all that his face was stony and his tone sarcastic.

"No sir, I guess you didn't. Sorry," Sandburg mumbled as, with a wide-eyed look of 'what's this all about?' to Jim, he turned away.

"Close the door, Jim," Simon directed as he leafed through the file in front of him, "and have a seat."

Once Ellison had settled in front of him, Simon looked up, his expression less intimidating. "Want a cup of coffee?"

"No, sir, thank you. You wanted to discuss something?" Jim prompted.

"Uh huh. I see you and your partner interrupted a robbery in progress Friday night on the way home," Simon observed, gesturing toward the file.

"That's right. It was a straightforward apprehension of a strung out kid while he was in the process of holding up a convenience store. Nothing special," Ellison confirmed, giving the basic facts.

"How did Sandburg do?" Banks asked, his tone mild.

"Just fine, sir…by the book. No problems," Jim replied, holding his superior's gaze.

"Good," Simon replied, picking up a cigar to fiddle with, as his eyes bore into Ellison's gaze. "And, you, how did you do, Detective?"

Jim's gaze skittered away, and he had the grace to blush softly while he shrugged, searching for words. "Well, sir, I could have done better," he finally admitted.

"Care to explain that, Jim?" Simon pushed, wanting the details, the trace of a smile playing around his lips.

Hanging his head, shaking it a little, Jim finally caught on to the game. Smiling slightly, he looked back up at his boss as he admitted, "You would have won your bet, Simon…I wasn't ready for it. Blair said you told him that you figured I'd freak out…you were right."

"Uh huh," Simon grunted, pleased that his knowledge of his people was once again confirmed. "Details, Ellison, I want details."

"You are a cruel man, Simon, you know that, don't you?" Ellison quipped back, but sighed with resignation. He knew his boss, his friend, was just giving him the chance to talk out something that had been harder than he'd ever imagined it would be. "I ordered him to stay with the truck and get backup. He told me to 'get real', that he was heading to the back to create the distraction. Then he was off, no hesitation, no discussion…and I saw him pull out his gun on the way, ready for action." Ellison paused as he looked up and saw empathy in the dark eyes that studied him, all trace of the teasing gone.

"Our little boy is all grown up, Jim," Simon observed dryly.

"You can say that again," Ellison agreed with a nod. "When I blasted him afterward, he reamed me out good. Told me he was just doing his job, that I'd just have to get used to it, 'get over' wanting to protect him…or this wouldn't work. He was right on all counts, Simon. I can't believe I wasn't ready for it."

Simon scratched his jaw as he observed, "Well, you've had more than three years to pretty much order him around…you probably just reacted out of habit. And, well, it's okay to want to protect him, to keep him safe. He's your partner, after all…you just have to understand that sometimes it won't be possible."

Ellison nodded, grimacing with chagrined agreement. "Was that all, sir?"

"Yep, that's all, Jim. Get back to work. I'd like to see some progress on these weapons' heists," Simon replied, waving him toward the door.

"We're working on it, sir," Jim assured him as he took his leave.

Watching him leave, Simon's gaze shifted to catch Blair's concerned look. The captain gave a slight smile and a wink, then turned back to the files on his own desk. For a moment, Blair didn't know what the non-verbal message meant, but when he saw Jim's slight blush and weary amusement, he figured it out. Relieved that Simon had only been assuring himself that Jim could live with the new reality, Blair turned back to work on the frustrating files on his desk.

When his phone rang a couple of hours later, and he heard the voice on the other end of the line, he was glad Jim had wandered off somewhere on some errand or other. "Eli…" Blair exclaimed softly, with immediate recognition. "I…I guess you got the copies of my proposed dissertation."

"Yes, I did, thank you," the old professor's voice confirmed, his tone remote and impersonal. "I'd like to see you, if it's convenient either later today or tomorrow, for an hour or so, to discuss your oral defence. If you agree, I'd like to schedule the defence itself for Friday afternoon."

"Of course, sure, whatever is good for you," Blair stammered, his heart aching at the coldness in his former mentor and good friend's voice. He pressed his eyes closed and worked hard to keep his voice steady as he asked, "What time this afternoon and Friday would you like to hold the meetings?"

They worked out the details and Blair gently lowered the receiver to its cradle. Head down, he wondered if now was the time to tell Jim, but again he had the uncomfortable feeling that it was being rushed through for form, not substance, a kind of sick charade. Though he hated to think Eli would be a party to such a thing. Still…better to let it play out. If he was wrong, and they granted him his doctorate, he'd have good news to share, not uncertain and anxious speculations. Checking the calendar, he noted that Jim had a dentist appointment that afternoon and breathed a sigh of relief…and on Friday, Jim was in court all day. So, he wouldn't have to try to explain why he wasn't at the station. But, looking up toward Simon's office, he realized he had an obligation to his boss to let him know why he'd be absent from duty for a couple of hours twice this week.

Once Jim had left for his routine appointment, Blair strode to Simon's office, knocking briefly then asking, "Ah, Captain, could I have a minute?"

"Sure, Sandburg, come on in. I hear you made a righteous bust Friday night. Good work," Simon replied, waving him toward a chair.

"Thanks, Si..er, sir," Blair stammered a little. Moving restlessly, he finally settled into a chair and blurted out, "Simon, I got a letter from the university a couple of weeks ago, saying they thought they'd acted precipitously and offering me an opportunity to submit my dissertation."

"Whoa!" Simon exclaimed, sitting back, clearly shocked. "Just slow down a minute. What brought this about? Did you ask for a review?"

"No sir, I'm as surprised as you are and, frankly, I have no idea why they are giving me this chance," Blair replied, his gaze open and clear. "But…well, I want to try, Simon. I've sent them my paper on 'The Thin Blue Line'…I'd actually finished it months ago as…well, it doesn't matter. My advisor just called and wants to see me this afternoon…and the formal oral defence will be on Friday."

"Funny that Jim hasn't mentioned anything about this," Simon observed, his gaze sharp. "You haven't told him, have you?"

Shaking his head, Blair lifted his hands and let them fall, an unconsciously helpless gesture. "No," he replied. "I don't want him to get excited about it…it might just be a scam, to protect them legally from expelling me without due process. He feels bad enough about what went down. So…well, if it's good news, I can tell him…if it isn't, well, he doesn't need to know about it."

"I see," Simon murmured. Frowning, he had to ask, "If you get your Ph.D., does that mean you'll be resigning from the department?

"NO!" Blair exclaimed. Shaking his head to reinforce his words, he repeated, "No…I want to be Jim's partner. It's just that… it would give me validation, Simon…and closure. Can you understand?"

Nodding somberly, Simon pulled off his glances and rubbed the bridge of his nose as he replied, "Yes, Blair, I can understand. Go on, get out of here. See your advisor and good luck. Let me know how it all works out."

"Absolutely, sir," Blair confirmed readily with a grateful smile. "Thank you."

"Sandburg," Simon observed quietly, as Blair stood to leave, "I know you and Jim try to protect each other. But, the two of you seem to do a lot better when you're not keeping secrets from one another. You might want to let him know what's happening."

Pausing for a moment, Blair thought about that. "Yeah…I appreciate the advice, Captain," he said then turned away.

Shaking his head, Simon muttered to himself, "I'm going to have to watch that kid…he tends to use 'Captain' instead of my name whenever he doesn't really agree with me. I wonder if he knows that?"

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

It felt odd to drive back onto the campus grounds and park outside of Rainier…and then Blair thought it felt odd to feel odd. He'd spent almost half his life on this campus…for a long time, the old weathered buildings had been the closest thing to home he'd ever really had. With no little trepidation, he crossed the parking lot, his head a little down, avoiding eye contact with anyone who passed by, hoping to get in and out without any terminally embarrassing incident.

He hesitated for a moment outside his advisor's door, then rapped on the panel as he hovered uncertainly in the open doorway. Dr. Eli Stoddard looked up from the text he was reading and nodded, waving Blair in to sit down across the desk from him.

"You're looking well," the professor observed. "I heard you'd become a police officer."

"That's right. I graduated from the Academy two weeks ago," Blair confirmed.

"A strange occupation for you, some might think," Eli remarked dryly. "Let me guess…you are now officially Jim Ellison's partner, not just his civilian observer."

Smiling slightly, trying to relax, Blair nodded as he confirmed, "Yes, sir, I started officially last Monday."

"Hmmm," the professor murmured as he studied Blair for a long moment, as if waiting for something more, and when it wasn't forthcoming, he looked away, a shadow of regret in his eyes.

Finding the silence uncomfortable, Blair said quietly, "I'm sorry, sir, for…for letting you down."

The alert and intelligent eyes snapped back to his as Eli replied sharply, "You should be sorry. You did let me down…but I suspect we're not talking about the same things. You didn't trust me, Blair. You didn't come to me for help when the confusion got out of hand."

Surprised, Blair gaped at his professor for a moment, then replied with abject apology, "Oh please…don't ever think I don't trust you. It's just that…it was such a mess. And I didn't want to drag you into it. God, Eli…" his voice cracked, but he swallowed to force himself to continue, "I had to discredit the document… myself…I didn't want any of that dirt tarnishing your reputation. You've been everything to me here…my mentor, my friend. I was hurting you badly enough without…"

"Enough, Blair," the professor cut in. "Enough self-recrimination and flagellation. What's done is done. But don't you dare presume that I in any way believed that sham of a press conference. That, indeed, would be insulting."

"You didn't believe…" Blair murmured, stunned. "But…I assumed…you didn't call…"

The old professor sighed wearily as he shook his head. "Blair…Blair…how long have I known you? More than twelve years, since you were sixteen years old. I've watched you grow and mature, your brilliance shining ever more brightly as the years went by…your enthusiasm as intact as the day you arrived. I'm the first one with whom you discussed your outlandish theories of the possible existence of sentinels…and I'm the one who agreed with you that maybe you weren't so crazy after all to hope that you might find one. For the last four years, you've provided me with regular updates and meticulous reports of your observations and experiences with your 'source'…and I watched you, saw you become ever more involved with James Ellison, more a friend than a researcher. I worried about your objectivity…because I'd long ago figured out who your 'source' was. But, I never worried about your integrity. The only lies you told were in front of that camera, to protect your source since we hadn't yet determined how to safeguard his privacy. How could you possibly imagine that I would believe you had deceived me for the last four years…that I would not know the difference between manufactured and carefully documented scientific evidence?"

Blair's face was bleak as he gazed at his professor and then looked away. "I guess you must think I'm a fool," he sighed.

"No, I think you are a very principled man, even a courageous one. But, I could wish you had come to me, that we might have looked at the options…" Eli replied, his tone objective but there was a trace of compassion underlying the words.

Swallowing, Blair nodded. "I thought about it," he replied softly. "I wanted to…but it all went bad so fast. And Jim…well, I had to choose, Eli, between my career and my friend. I couldn't have both, not at that point. It had gone too far with the media frenzy. It had gone way too far."

The professor sighed as he reflected, "I thought it was likely something like that. Which is why I didn't call. You had made your choice and I didn't want to make it any more difficult for you than it was. Because, I would have fought back, you see…I'm not happy with the sacrifice you've made. This field needs you, Blair…needs your passion and insight, your creative intuition and brilliant analysis. I suppose I was angry with you…I'm sorry."

Blair bit his lip and held his breath as he fought back the emotion that surged over him…the relief that Eli understood and didn't despise him was overwhelming. He blinked rapidly, then sniffed and took one grounding breath and then another. Of all the people whose opinion and regard he valued, there were few who mattered to him more than this astute and distinguished man who had been his rock for so many years.

Silently, Eli stood and circled the desk to lay an arm around Blair's quivering shoulders and draw the younger man tight against his side. "It's alright, son…you're allowed to grieve all that you have freely given away…your future and dreams, your good reputation. You may have done what was right, lad, but that doesn't mean it didn't break your heart."

Blair's hand came up to cover his mouth, to hold back the sob, but the tears he tried to deny streamed down his face. "Oh, Eli…" he whispered as he moved to wrap his arms around his mentor and oldest friend. It was the first time he'd allowed himself to weep…the first time someone who really understood what he'd done, what it had cost him, had told him they still believed in him. Eli was the closest he had to a father figure and the hardest part of what he'd done had been his belief that he'd betrayed this man, betrayed the love and friendship, the trust…the belief that he'd forever lost someone who was a part of his soul.

Silently, Eli braced him and stroked his hair, letting him get it out, allowing him his grief and sorrow.

Finally, the tears slowed and Blair took a deep shuddering breath, embarrassed to have lost it so badly, but knowing he'd been denying his own right and need to grieve for too long. He brushed the wetness from his face and eyes, pulling a little away from the man who lent him such unwavering support. "Thanks, Eli," he murmured, then looked up to find kind and compassionate eyes looking down at him. "You don't know what it means to me to know you don't despise me. I never wanted to hurt you…or disappoint you."

"I know, son, I know," Eli replied, gently massaging Blair's shoulders until the tremors had all stopped. When Blair heaved another, much steadier sigh, the professor slapped him on the back and returned to his chair on the other side of the desk. He looked steadily into Blair's eyes as he said, "I will respect your confidence with regard to your Sentinel, but you need to consider that I might not have been the only person in the world who knows you well enough to be convinced that press conference was balderdash. Someday, Blair, James Ellison is going to have learn to deal with who and what he is."

Soberly, Blair nodded, torn between feeling that his deception and sacrifice might have all been in vain and relief that not everyone in his life believed him a fraud…and that was all mixed up with sudden alarm about the implications all this had for Jim. Too much input, too much going on in his life. He needed to find time to process it all, to make some kind of sense of it so that he could then help Jim come to grips with the fact that maybe it was impossible to put the genie back into the bottle.

"Alright, now, let's turn to this opportunity to complete the requirements for your doctorate. I've read through the paper you sent me, and it's very good. Your research is contrasted and grounded with other very credible studies, your observations astute and insightful. Though I'm mildly irritated to know that this is no more than a secondary piece, written as a blind in many respects, that in no way takes away from its scholarship. You've built well upon those outlines and excerpts you've shared with me over the past year, and the analysis and conclusions follow nicely upon several of the articles you've written on the police sub-culture since you began your role as an observer three years ago. This paper is a very sound piece of work, and taken with the other more focused papers on specific elements, shapes an impressive body of research on the subject. On it's own merit, excellent work…as a blind, truly brilliant." Eli paused and shook his head as he murmured, "Two dissertations, a teaching job, research and all that time working with the police. I'm not sure how you crammed it all in."

"Yeah, well," Blair offered deprecatingly, "it all kind of overlaps…the time at the police station was my primary research time for both papers, and well, I had to be publishing regularly to maintain my position as a teaching fellow…not to mention hold the rights to that upgrade office from the dungeon I was in a couple of years ago. And, it wasn't all that much extra work, actually. There are parallels between the police subculture and the behavioural characteristics and psychological control elements exhibited by the Sentinel. No surprise there, I guess."

"Well, knowing you, this achievement isn't all that surprising…and I'll bet you decided sleep was a waste of time that could be better spent on other activities," Eli smiled, teasing Blair to be sure, but nevertheless certain he was right.

Blair just dipped his head and grinned impishly as he nodded.

"Alright, you didn't object when I suggested an early defence so I assume you feel prepared?" Eli confirmed.

"Yes, I'm ready. I've been living and breathing this stuff for almost four years…and if we don't do it soon, my objectivity will be challenged. I've crossed 'the thin blue line'…I guess you could say I've 'gone native," Blair replied, with no hint of humour. He was perfectly serious.

"My thoughts, exactly," Eli agreed. "Alright, son…that's all we needed to cover today. We'll go ahead on Friday at 2:00 here in this office. I expect we will have a decision shortly as the Chancellor is rather anxious to resolve this situation."

Sweep it under the rug, more like, Blair thought to himself, but asked instead, "Eli, do you know why I've been granted this chance? Did you have something to do with it?"

"I certainly hope so," the professor replied, thoughtfully. "But the displeasure of a few obscure professors in the Anthropology and Philosophy departments wouldn't have swayed her, not on our own. I know a good number of students from your classes over the years made their own protests, not believing the press conference any more than a number of the faculty did. None of could see any legitimate reason for them to penalize you for a paper you never did submit as authentic research. But…the unholy rush to resolve the situation with the grudging offer if you could meet a completely unrealistic deadline, no doubt with the hope of catching you napping," he grinned a little at that impossibility, then continued, "no…I think there must have been some outside pressure, but whatever it was or where it came from, I have no idea. The SheDemon has no love for you, Blair. She would not have conceded this if she'd felt she had a choice in the matter."

"Well…whoever and whatever…I'm grateful. To you and the others. I never expected this chance to finish my doctorate," Blair replied sincerely. "Thank you for believing in me, even when I didn't make it easy."

"What will you do with the doctorate, Blair, if the university finally awards it to you? Will you return to Anthropology?" Eli asked, a wistful note in his voice.

Shaking his head, looking uncertain, Sandburg replied, "Honestly? I don't know what I'll do with a Ph.D. I'm committed now to my work with Jim and the police department. But…who knows, Eli? I never expected to be a cop…I sure can't say that I never expect to teach again, or work in a university milieu. I've decided I need a new crystal ball."

Smiling, Eli sighed and waved to the door. "Be off with you, Blair. I'll see you on Friday. When all this is over and done, let's try to get back to our regular monthly dinners. I've missed you, son."

Blair tilted his head as he smiled softly in return. "I've missed you, too, Eli…I'd like to see you often."

Standing, Sandburg turned to the door as he said, "See you Friday." But, when he reached the portal, he turned back and hesitated a moment before he asked quietly, "You do know I love you, don't you?"

"I know, son…I've known that for a long time, just as you've always known I feel the same way about you. Now go on, or they'll be challenging my own objectivity to assess your academic contributions," Eli replied with a chuckle, love and laughter flashing in his eyes.

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

Simon's words had given him pause, and Eli's observations only strengthened Blair's sense that he couldn't keep any of this from Jim any longer. Besides, he felt so damned good about it all, especially about restoring his relationship with his mentor and old friend, that Sandburg felt like celebrating. Stopping off at the market, he bought the fixings for one of Jim's favourite meals…steak and baked potatoes with a good bottle of burgundy, and some greens and fruit to balance the meal and satisfy himself.

Once back in the loft, he set the steaks to marinate, opened the bottle to breathe, and whipped up the spinach, toasted almond and tangerine salad as well as the poppy seed dressing to go with it. He'd flipped on the stereo and was bouncing with the drums, chanting a little unconsciously under his breath when Jim arrived home. The Sentinel had picked up the beat of the drums as soon as he stepped out of his truck and looked up toward the loft with surprise in his eyes. Blair hadn't played tribal music since…since he'd turned his back on anthropology. Hell, he hadn't blasted any music that loud in months. Jim smiled with indulgence and relief. Sandburg was getting back to normal…finally and at very long last.

He was just heading into the building when his cell chirped for his attention. Flipping it open, he said, "Ellison," as he started up the steps.

"Jimmy!" his father's voice came back at him, sounding as jubilant as the music that filled the stairwell.

"Hey, Dad," Ellison replied, blocking his other ear with his hand to hear better. "What's up?"

"It worked, Jimmy! I just got a letter from the Chancellor at Rainier…they're giving Blair a chance to finish his doctorate. She said they had received his dissertation and are moving forward with the process in short order. But…I guess you already know that."

There was a hint of the 'I wished you'd have let me know,' in his father's voice and Jim floundered. Looking up the stairwell to the apartment above, he tried to sound…what? normal?…as he answered, "Well, we wanted to be sure it was good news, Dad."

But, he knew he sounded flat.

His father didn't seem to notice. "Oh, I can understand that. I just wanted you and Blair to know how pleased I am, really pleased that he's going to get a fair chance. Give him my best, Jimmy," William Ellison replied, his voice warm and genuinely happy.

"I will, Dad…thanks," Jim remembered to add before they terminated the call. "Thanks for doing this for Blair."

"My pleasure, son," his father responded, asking to be kept posted on events before he ended the call.

"Yeah," Jim sighed as he flipped the cell closed and returned it to his pocket. "You'll know as soon as I do, Dad…maybe even before, from the looks of things." Swallowing hard, trying to keep his first instinct toward anger in check, Ellison trudged up the remaining steps and across the hall to the door. He could smell the marinating steaks, the scent of the salad dressing and the lighter bouquet of the wine. Blair was preparing a celebration…guess, maybe, he'd decided to share the good news. Well, better late than never, eh, Ellison? Jim thought bitterly.

Reaching for the doorknob, he was irritated to see that his fingers were trembling and he stopped to pull himself together. This was potentially wonderful news for Blair and could give him the chance to go back to the life he'd loved. The life where he was safe. Where there were no guns, no monsters.

But, for a Sentinel who had believed his partner was finally securely and firmly allied with him, for a man who sought guarantees, who needed to know where he was at in his life, needed control, the news was devastating.

He recalled his father had said that Blair apparently had already submitted his dissertation. What dissertation? Suddenly, he felt his temper flare. Why the hell didn't the kid ever tell him what was going on? Why was he always finding things out after the fact? Dammit…

Pushing open the door, Ellison entered the loft, his expression tight as he surveyed the preparation for a minor feast. Hell, Sandburg had even lit a few of his candles. Sneezing, he peeled off his jacket, avoiding Blair's eyes as his roommate looked up and called with a smile, "Hey, man, want some wine?"

Turning back to Sandburg, Ellison gestured toward the table set with a linen cloth and the wine as he observed with a carefully controlled voice, "Looks like you're planning a party, Chief. Got a hot date?"

"No, man…this is for us. I got some great news today…" Blair began, but Jim waved him off as he moved with great deliberation to turn down the music. "Oh, sorry, Jim…a little too loud, I guess," Blair apologized, but then tried to carry on with his news. "Anyway, as I was saying…"

"You've got a chance to salvage your Ph.D.," Jim supplied, his voice tight, his eyes flat. "That's great, Chief. I'm glad you finally decided to tell me."

Blair was floored. "How did you know?" he asked, his eyes wide with surprise.

"Dad just called and told me," Ellison replied, deciding he could use a drink after all. Moving to the cupboard, he pulled out a goblet and poured himself a healthy portion, not bothering to offer any to Sandburg.

"Your father?" Blair repeated, even more confused. He'd thought fleetingly that maybe Simon had said something. "How did he know?"

Blowing out a long breath, Jim replied, "I told you when he called a couple of months ago that he wasn't happy about how the university treated you. He spoke to some people on the Board, wrote a letter…he just got the reply that you'd submitted your dissertation. But, that's not the point here…why didn't you tell me, Sandburg? I mean, this is pretty big news. And, I thought I was your best friend. Oh, and by the way, just what dissertation did you submit?"

"Hey, slow down a minute, Jim. You don't need to make like the Grand Inquisitor," Blair replied, holding his hands up in a calming gesture. His exuberance had been overlaid by surprise…but that heady feeling of happiness was fast fading in the glare of those cold blue eyes. This definitely was not going the way he had planned. Taking a breath when it seemed Jim wasn't going to say anything more, was just waiting less than patiently for his questions to be answered, Blair told him, "It was the paper I wrote on 'The Thin Blue Line', my back up dissertation if I couldn't win a guarantee of confidentiality on The Sentinel paper. I finished it shortly after we got back from Mexico."

Jim had the grace to wince a little at that, their respective memories of Mexico and its aftermath not being all that pleasant. The recovery time, he thought, when Blair got out of the hospital. He must have worked on it then. "Why didn't you tell me it was done? Or submit it if it was ready?" he asked, tone neutral, face expressionless.

Sighing, Blair replied, "Because if that paper was finished then I didn't have a reason anymore to keep observing the Major Crimes Unit, did I? And my pass would have been revoked. Besides, it was just a backup. I had hoped… well, it doesn't matter now what I'd hoped."

Nodding to himself, Ellison asked, "When did you find out that you were getting another chance?"

"Two weeks ago. I got a letter from the Chancellor," Blair replied, and then rushed on, "I didn't tell you because I thought it was some kind of charade, that they weren't serious. I didn't know your Dad had been pulling strings…that anybody really cared that my academic career was down the tubes. It was a surprise, and I didn't trust it…her. I thought I'd wait to see if it was for real before I said anything to you…I thought you'd be happy for me, man, and…if it was a charade, if they didn't really plan to ever grant me a doctorate, well, I didn't want to drag you through that."

"What made you think the offer wasn't serious?" Ellison asked, relenting a little, understanding Blair's reasoning. Nor had he missed the subtle slams in Blair's statement. Blair had thought he didn't care, didn't understand the magnitude of the sacrifice he'd made…God, how could he think that? Had thought he'd be 'happy'…he should be happy, Jim told himself. So, why did it feel as if his gut had turned into a great yawning chasm of emptiness?

"Fine," Blair muttered under his breath, brushing past Ellison to go to his room. When he returned, he handed the letter to Jim, saying abruptly, "You tell me if you would have thought that was a serious offer."

Setting his glass of wine on the table, Jim opened the letter and scanned the contents. Sighing, he nodded as he read. No wonder Sandburg had thought there was something fishy about it all. Ten days? If he hadn't already finished the paper, he wouldn't have had a chance of meeting that deadline. "Okay," Jim said quietly as he folded the letter and handed it back to Blair. "I see your point. But," he gestured at the table, and the air toward the stereo, "something's changed to make you believe this might be legitimate."

"Yeah," Blair replied, staring down at the letter then turning his gaze back to Jim's intent eyes. "I saw Eli today. He…he never believed the press conference. He told me that he and some of the other professors, and some of the students, had lobbied the Chancellor to give me another chance. The paper is solid, he thinks, and we've scheduled the oral defence for Friday afternoon. He said I should have a decision quickly."

Nodding, Jim looked away as he picked up his glass. "Good…that's good, Chief. Congratulations," he said, trying to sound enthusiastic. Failing miserably.

Blair studied his friend, noting the dismal posture and the reluctance to meet his eyes. Blowing out a long breath, he tried to get his own irritation and disappointment in Jim's reaction under control. He was supposed to be the guide here and his Sentinel sure looked like one lost puppy.

"Jim, what is going on with you, man? I mean, I know you didn't like hearing about this from your father instead of me, but I had no idea he was even involved. You didn't tell me that, no doubt for the same reasons…so that I wouldn't get my hopes up. But…you look like you just lost your best friend. What's that about?" Blair demanded, his tone reasonable, but clearly expecting answers.

Sighing, Jim shook his head ruefully. "I don't know, Chief," he murmured, then raised his gaze to meet Blair's eyes. "I am happy for you. If you get a chance to get your doctorate, that's great. You deserve it."

Blair cocked an eyebrow at him, tilting his head forward in an exaggerated listening posture as he waved with his hands for more. "But…?" he encouraged. When Jim still hesitated, he pressed, "You look so miserable because…?"

Heaving out a long sigh, Ellison finally admitted, "Because I like having you as my partner…and if you get your Ph.D., you'll go back to the university…"

Or worse, Jim thought as he remembered the words in the letter. If Blair couldn't get a job at Rainier, he might actually move away.

Jim paled so visibly at that thought that Blair took his arm and half dragged him to a chair next to the table, as he murmured to himself, "Desertion, why is it always about 'desertion' with you, man?"

Pulling out a chair for himself and shifting it so that his knees almost touched Jim's when he sat down across the corner of the table, Blair said quietly as he laid a hand on Ellison's forearm, "Jim, listen to me and listen to me good. I'm not going to stop being a cop…I'm not going to stop being your partner. Not right away, anyway…maybe not ever. There's no way I'd get a job at Rainier after all that's happened, and there's no way I'd move away. But, I want this, Jim. I worked hard for it. I want to feel like I didn't fail. I'd really like it if you could be glad about this, happy for me. Is that so hard?"

Ashamed, relieved, still feeling out of control and a little lost, Ellison shook his head as he looked back into Blair's earnest gaze. God, he asks so little, and gives so much, he thought. Why can't it ever be enough for me? Out loud, he replied with deep sincerity, "No, Chief, it's not that hard…and it's not much to ask. I'm sorry, really sorry that…that I get so…I don't know. Crazy, I guess. I really hope this all works out for you. I mean it, you deserve it. This is only right. You worked harder than anyone I know. You're brilliant and…well, I AM happy for you. So…can we pretend I just arrived, and you can tell me your good news…and we can celebrate the way news like this deserves?"

"No, we can't pretend all that," Blair replied, but his lips curved into a soft smile. "However, we can celebrate." Standing, he poured himself a glass of wine, clicked his glass with Jim's and sipped as he continued to study his Sentinel over the rim of his glass. "Why don't you get the steaks on and I'll mix up the salad?"

Over dinner, Blair told Jim about his reunion with Eli. "I gotta tell you, Jim…restoring my relationship with him means a whole lot more to me than getting three fancy letters behind my name. It was such a relief to realize he didn't loathe the sight of me," Sandburg confided, his voice warm and his eyes distant with the reflected happiness he'd felt that afternoon. "He's a great man, and he's very special to me."

"I know, Chief…I'm glad he believes in you. Anybody who really knows you knows you aren't capable of anything dishonorable," Jim replied quietly.

Blair frowned a little at the words, and Jim wondered what he'd said wrong this time, but when Sandburg spoke, it was clear the frown wasn't meant for him, but was a mark of concern. "Funny you should say it like that. Eli said something similar today…and he warned me that that means there may be some other people out there who don't believe my dissertation was quite as fraudulent as I claimed it to be. That could be a problem for you, Jim…we need to think about that," Blair explained, worry in his eyes and voice.

Jim chewed on the inside of his lip as he thought about it. Then he nodded as he replied, "Eli's right and we should have both realized that, I guess. You made an incredible sacrifice for me, but, like I said, people who know you know that there had to be a lot more to the story. Look at the guys down at the station. They don't believe you're any kind of fraud…which has to mean they're wondering just what is the truth about me and my senses." Jim sighed, feeling suddenly as if his world was beginning to close in on him and he was so desperately tired of trying to hold it all back.

"Yeah," Blair sighed as well, leaning back. So much for my 'sacrifice', he thought dismally.

But then he reminded himself that he wouldn't have gone to the Academy otherwise, and here he was, going to get his doctorate anyway, or at least it looked like it, so things really did have a way of working out. 'Except for Jim,' he thought, turning his gaze back to his best friend. How do we protect him from anything like that media hell he went through the last time this came out? And, if I can't protect him, how do I help him prepare for it? Help him survive it?

Deciding he didn't have the answers at hand, Blair shifted to gather up the dishes and stood to take them to the sink. "We'll work it out, Jim, just not tonight," he said, injecting a note of confidence into his voice that he didn't actually feel. "A kind of 'controlled release' program of information dissemination, maybe, so that by the time people realize what they know, it's old news."

Ellison shook his head silently. He couldn't imagine a world in which people just took his senses for granted. Hell, they were his senses and he wasn't even comfortable with them. But, Blair was right; together they'd find some way of working it out. So long as Blair stayed with him, to help him handle the craziness, he'd be okay.

Looking up at his friend's back as Blair began to wash up, he recalled Blair's assurances that he wasn't going anywhere.

But, there was no guarantee of that, not now. Sighing, Ellison rubbed his neck. It seemed there never were any guarantees, not the ones he most wanted out of life, anyway, that was for damned sure.

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

The next morning, they brought Simon up to date and together they hashed out how they might make a beginning at revealing something of what Jim was capable of. Since everybody on the team already suspected most of it, they decided that in the future Ellison would be less circumspect about hiding what he was doing with them when he was working with them. But, that was as far as Jim was prepared to go, at least at that point. Maybe later, once they saw how the guys reacted, maybe then they could talk about the next step.

Their work on the weapons' heists was put on the shelf for a good part of that week when they needed to pitch in and help Rafe and H. with the drug smuggling case they'd been assigned. Working their snitches, brainstorming scenarios, putting bits and pieces of information together, they managed to anticipate the deal going down and had a force in place to catch the perpetrators in the midst of the transaction Thursday night. During the operation, Jim managed to control his anxiety about Sandburg's safety in such a potentially volatile situation, and he hoped that no one could see how nervous he felt, or know his palms were sweating. Blair demonstrated his competence with a calm and steady professionalism…if he was afraid, or worried about having to fire his weapon, nobody could tell. Except Jim, who could see the fine tremors roll through his partner's body. But, everything went like clockwork. It was a righteous bust that everyone felt really good about as they wrapped it up around midnight.

Sandburg's oral defence Friday afternoon wasn't a breeze, but neither was it unjust. There were tough, insightful questions, challenges to some of his conclusions, but he was confident of his material, able to answer with ease and assurance, effectively arguing his points. He could tell from the look on Eli's face that he'd done well as the session concluded. Now, he just had to wait for the final decision.

All in all, a pretty good week.

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

Blair got the call late Tuesday afternoon. "You did it, son," Eli said with great satisfaction. "Congratulations, Blair…I'm proud of you."

"Oh, wow," Sandburg breathed, looking up with a broadening smile at Jim who'd heard the tone of wonder…and now saw the brilliance of excitement and unbridled happiness dancing in Blair's eyes. "Thanks, Eli…I don't know what to say!"

His advisor laughed at the tone of almost childlike delight in his protégé's voice. "Well, you don't have to say anything at all, if you don't want to. Just feel really good, Blair. It's been a long time coming and you have more than earned it. I've spoken with the Chancellor and she has agreed to a quiet ceremony, again here in my office if you concur, before the end of the month. I'd like you to feel free to invite anyone you would like to see you receive your doctorate, but I'm afraid we'll have to limit the numbers to no more than twenty…the office just isn't that big."

"Twenty?" Blair repeated, delighted. "Hey, that's more than enough space, Eli…you just let me know when, and I'll be there."

"I'm sure you will," the professor chuckled again. "I'll get back to you in a couple of weeks, once we know when all the required administrivia is complete and your sheepskin is ready. We can make some arrangements for dinner then, as well. Alright?"

"More than alright, Eli…this is wonderful, really awesome, man…really! I'll look forward to hearing from you!" Blair replied, a broad smile lighting his face. Putting down the phone, he murmured softly, as if still in a state of wonder, to Jim, "I did it!" Then, as it fully hit, he was on his feet, doing a victory dance, hair flying as his shoes beat a joyous tattoo into the floor. Startled by his behaviour and Ellison's laughter and enthusiastic applause, all eyes turned to them and Simon came to his office door. "That's great, Chief," Ellison was calling out. "Really, really great!"

"What's going on out here?" the Captain bellowed. "Sandburg…what is that? Some kind of ritual mating dance?"

Pausing in midstep, Sandburg raised his glowing face to Simon's, as he called back, "I did it, Simon! I'm being awarded my doctorate!"

Banks' face burst into a broad grin of delight as he strode into the bullpen, his arms wide as he cried, "Congratulations, Blair! That's great news!"

"Does this mean someone can tell Naomi her little boy has finally graduated?" H. called out with a snicker.

"Seems like," Rafe called back. Though they'd both been taken by surprise, not realizing the doctorate was any kind of possibility, there was no denying their delight or the pride they felt at the news. Sandburg was one of them. When he did good, they all felt good.

Joel walked in then from the hall, to see the amazing sight of Simon hugging Blair and Jim pounding on the kid's back while everyone else stood around cheering and clapping.

"Hey, what did I miss?" he called into the confusion.

"Hairboy's getting his P.H.D.!" H. called back, with loud emphasis on the lofty initials.

"What?" Joel cried, turning back to Blair, who nodded with a grin so wide it looked like it could split his face. "Why…that's wonderful news! Oh, congratulations, Blair," he said, tears he couldn't control glistening in his eyes.

"The university gave me another chance, Joel…I didn't want to say anything, because I was scared it wouldn't come through…but I just got the call," Blair babbled, the words running together in his excitement.

"I'm so happy for you, son, and so proud…I could just burst," Joel replied, moving to give his young friend a solid hug.

"Thanks, Joel…everybody," Blair replied, getting his breath. "Sorry…I didn't mean to make a scene. It kinda caught me by surprise."

"You're entitled, Sandburg," Simon replied as he patted the younger man on the back. "You done good, kid…real good."

Realizing the others, excepting Jim, didn't know how this might affect his work with them, Banks tilted his head toward the rest of the gang as he said to Sandburg, "You want to reassure them that there won't be any personnel changes, or shall I?"

"Oh, right," Sandburg sighed happily, touched that it could matter so much to them that he stay. Turning to the others, he said, "I don't want any of you to get your hopes up. Just because I'm getting my doctorate, it doesn't mean that you can get rid of me that easy. Ph.D. or not, I'm a member of Major Crimes, and I intend to remain a member of Major Crimes. I hope nobody has any major objections to that."

His announcement was met with another round of cheers and applause…if he'd had any doubts before that they wanted him to stay, or that their acceptance of him had not been a simple act of mercy, he could harbour them no longer. They were delighted to hear that, Ph.D. or not, he was staying with them.

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

Chapter Three: Through A Glass Darkly…

"You are an idiot!" the stocky, broad shouldered man roared at his sister's son. "An idiot who could ruin everything! What are we supposed to do with this garbage, eh?" he demanded, shoving the briefcase back across the warehouse counter. "It's useless to us."

"Hey, Guido, that 'garbage' is worth megabucks," his nephew protested, unrepentant.

"IF you have the packaging, merchandising and distribution networks," Guido seethed. "We do not. We deal in weapons. I have spent years building up both sides of this business, starting with a local operation. Specialty, hard to find weapons for the discerning buyer. Why, the right one can bring in fifty thousand, a hundred thousand, easy, often a good deal more. Good quality hunting rifles, Saturday night specials, whatever… but guns, always guns. Never in a hurry, never greedy, just slow, steady growth. Now we are national… with the latest deals, we are ready to go international. But this…this could bring all the wrong kind of attention."

Shrugging, the younger man said, "Fine, I'll move it myself."

"You'll do nothing of the sort, Peter. Burn it, bury it, flush it down the toilet, I don't care, but get rid of it," the burly man ordered, shoving a pointed finger sharply into his idiot nephew's chest. "And forget about going back there. I can't risk them tying you to this. You'll move over into the other side. You can drive can't you?" he asked scathingly.

"Yeah, yeah, I can drive," Pete said with ill grace.

"Fine, good, go…get out of my sight," his uncle replied, turning his back and stomping away.

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

"People! My office NOW!" Simon bellowed from his office door. Startled by the rage in their boss' voice and the thunderous expression on his face, everyone immediately complied. As they made haste to do his bidding, they threw puzzled looks at one another, wondering what had gotten Banks so riled. He'd seemed perfectly fine when he'd arrived not two hours ago.

They didn't have long to wait for the answer.

As soon as they'd taken seats around the conference table, Simon, who had remained standing with his arms crossed and his face scowling heavily, pried open his tight jaw to snap, "I've just had a call from Internal Affairs. It seems that a goodly portion of that drug haul we brought in last week has taken a little walk, if, as they so impolitely wonder, it was all ever signed in in the first place. Since the logbook had also gone for a stroll, there was no way of knowing for sure."

Expressions of modest dismay, polite shock, scowls of having just been insulted and general confusion filled the various faces around the table. So far, they couldn't see what it all had to do with them. Except for the IA's implied slander, but that was nothing new with those dolts. They were always seeing bad cops around every corner. The members of the Major Crimes Unit were clean and they all knew it. They'd made a righteous bust and turned in the haul. Not that this was good news. It wasn't. But…why was Simon so obviously and personally furious about it?

But, then…the missing logbook was more serious. Without the paper trail from arrest, confiscation and impoundment, there could be trouble proving the relevance of exhibits during the subsequent trials. As that thought sank in, and they realized how many of their cases depended on the evidence, hell, all of them, the concern in the room deepened.

As Simon watched the implications sink in, his lips twisted in acknowledgment that maybe they weren't all complete idiots.

Blair, frowning thoughtfully as he thought about what Simon had said, murmured, "You said the logbook 'had' gone missing…does that mean it's been found?"

"Good for you, Sandburg, I'm glad someone here was paying attention," Simon growled.

"If they found it, then what's the problem? It's a serious matter to have lost evidence from the lockup, sure, but if most of it's still there, and they've got the logbook, then how does that impact on us?" Rafe asked.

"First, when they found the log, the relevant page was missing. Second, they found it here, in the Major Crimes Unit…in Sandburg's desk, to be precise," Simon replied, disgust evident in his voice.

"Oh, now, wait a minute," Blair protested. "Captain…you don't think that I…"

"No, Sandburg, I don't," his superior snorted, then explained with exaggerated patience. "If you were dirty, you're smart enough not to hold onto the evidence. It's a plant, that's obvious. What isn't obvious is why? Furthermore, what's obvious to me isn't necessarily obvious to IA. They very helpfully pointed out that you were the one who logged in the evidence in the first place."

"Hey, hold on," Jim intervened. "For the last four years, Sandburg has been logging in evidence…he's the only one who can stand the piles of paper and administration required. He's acted as a rep for all of us, any number of times."

"Don't you think I know that?" Simon blurted, out of patience. Taking a deep breath, he continued, "It seems there have been other incidents over the past several years, guns more than drugs, but nothing ever linked back to us, so we weren't ever involved. The culprit has never been found. But, now, they wonder if Sandburg hasn't been the guilty party all along."

Joel made the connection first and groaned, "Ah, you have got to be kidding."

"I only wish I were," Simon replied with a heavy sigh as his eyes met Sandburg's gaze.

Looking between the two, the newest member of the team blanched as awareness hit. "The press conference…"

"I'm afraid so, Blair," Simon replied. "I'm sorry."

"Oh my God," Sandburg murmured as he sagged back in his chair. That particular nightmare was never going to end, never stop haunting him. Once a self-proclaimed liar and fraud, it seemed he would always be seen as one. It had already cost him one career…was it now going to cost him this one, too? Lifting his eyes to Jim, he could see his partner had just clicked in…the fury building in his eyes was a dead giveaway that he'd put it together.

Simon saw the fury as well and moved to contain it. "Don't you dare get righteous with me, Ellison," he growled.

Blair closed his eyes and lifted a hand to cover them as he curled forward, elbows on the table. The multiple levels of that message were brutal.

Jim looked like he'd just been pole-axed.

The rest looked at the three of them in turn, then looked away, not wanting to get into the middle of something they'd been conscientiously ignoring for years now. Far from stupid, or incompetent, detectives, they'd long ago figured out that there was something different about Ellison. He heard things, smelled things, hell, he could see things, they couldn't. And, they'd all figured out that it had something to do with that damned Sentinel mess a few months back…that Blair was in the middle of it, and Simon knew a whole lot more than they did. But, if they couldn't be trusted with whatever the big secret was, then fine…who cared. It was none of their business.

But, their feelings on the matter had been part of what they'd thought was so funny when it all came out and Ellison was in such a twist. And, it was why they'd teased him so mercilessly about it…they'd been nailing Ellison with their banter for not trusting them with whatever his secret was. So, he could see better and hear better than they could, big deal. He still put his pants on like they did, one leg at a time.

It had been a riot.

At least, it was until Blair took the fall.

And then it hadn't been funny anymore.

They'd rallied behind him, unanimously supporting Simon's decision to offer Sandburg a place in their unit if he'd agree to go to the Academy. And, while it wasn't a perfect solution, at least Hairboy wasn't left hanging in the wind. Besides, they liked the kid. He was 'good people', always willing to lend a hand, whether around the office with the endless paperwork or with more personal concerns. There was no denying that his contributions in the ideas department had had a very favourable impact on their annual performance bonuses as the unit with the highest arrest record in the department, not all of it attributable to the 'Cop of the Year' either…but, he never lorded it over them, never made them feel like he was so much smarter than they were, though they all knew without doubt that he was. They didn't call him 'Einstein' for nothing. No, if anything, he always made them feel like he had something to learn from them…made them feel good, confident and proud. He was fun to be around, too, always lightening the often tense atmosphere with his wacky sense of humour and there was no denying that Ellison was a good deal more approachable since Blair had chipped his edges off…or maybe just plain wore them away. They liked him, respected him, and wanted to keep him around.

It was why they'd stood up for Blair when others in the PD made disparaging comments about him when he'd first come back. He'd paid his dues for whatever little game he and Ellison were playing, and they'd been high enough. They weren't about to see him pay more, not if they had anything to say about it.

But, now the specter of his own admitted fraudulence was back to haunt the kid again.

Simon looked around at his team. "I called you all in here because we all know this is bullshit, pure and simple. IA has had years to figure out who is pilfering our lockup of evidence and they've come up with squat. But, whoever it is has finally made a mistake. They've come after us, and we're going to take them down."

Blair raised his head and lifted a hand to protest. "Simon…if you all get involved, if you try to protect me, they'll just think you're all part of it. The risk to everyone's reputation if you back me…it's not worth it."

"That's where you're wrong, Hairboy," H. cut in with unusual calm…a deadly calm. "Simon's right. When they come after one of us, they come after all of us. You will not go through this mess alone."

"You got that right," Rafe chimed in.

"No way," Joel confirmed their words.

"Oh, Sandy, let us help you…we all know you're innocent," Megan sighed wearily, conscious that her own knowledge about all of it was deeper than that of her three colleagues, but she also knew very well the other three weren't exactly clueless. They'd figured a lot of it out, and the media clips months ago had filled in a lot of details. She'd never understood why it had to be such a deep dark secret in the first place and now there seemed very little value in pretending anymore.

Blair looked around at all of them, up at Simon and finally at Jim. Ellison returned his gaze steadily as he said quietly, "Chief, when they're right, they are right."

For a moment more their gaze remained locked, sharing their understanding that everyone around this table knew, and they'd been fools not to recognize that long before now. Jim's gaze was full of shame because he could imagine what his colleagues must think of him for having allowed the sacrifices Blair had made on his behalf. He'd thought it all himself, still did. Blair's eyes clouded with profound regret for the hurt he read in his partner's face…once again, Jim was trapped in a disaster not of his making, but he was paying the penalty. Sandburg shook his head tightly, just once, but the Sentinel understood that his Guide was telling him not to take it all on himself, that this was not his fault. Jim nodded slightly, but his gaze slipped away.

Blowing out a deep breath, Sandburg finally nodded. Looking again at each of them in turn, he simply said, "Thank you." As his gaze shifted to Simon's, he asked, "Where do you want us to start?"

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

Pit bulls have a better, more congenial nature than do the investigators from Internal Affairs. It wasn't long before they were digging their teeth into everyone's throats, trying as Blair had predicted they would, to bring them all down once it was clear that the members of Major Crimes were standing together on this one.

"Captain Banks," Lieutenant Hurley said with that disgustingly oily manner he had, "we can understand that you want to protect one of your own men. That's natural, though, perhaps, misguided. After all, none of us wants a dirty cop on our team. But…something about all this puzzles us."

"Oh, and what is that?" Simon drawled, his own narrowed eyes hard and cold as he leaned back in his chair, projecting an indefinable insolence and lack of respect for the two investigators facing him across his desk. Here it comes, he thought.

"Well, a lot of good cops have wondered why they were overlooked for promotion when you decided to boost a raw recruit, who was a self-proclaimed liar and fraud, into your unit. You have to admit, Captain Banks, that the situation looks decidedly odd," the second investigator, Lieutenant Fraser, chimed in, her tone oh so reasonable.

And here we go, Simon thought as he leaned forward, his elbows planted firmly on his desk, now projecting an aggressive antagonism. "I don't much care what anyone else thinks about how I choose my team," he replied. "But, since you asked, let me point out a few things for you. Detective Sandburg had been a member of this team, however 'unofficially' for more than three years. During that time, he has made contributions of incalculable worth, to which the arrest record of this unit will attest. Further, he distinguished himself as a man of unique and rare excellence during his time at the Academy. The incident to which you refer had nothing to do with his work here. I fear you may, in your ignorance, have misunderstood the academic situation to which Detective Sandburg was referring in his press conference. He was addressing the matter of a document that he had never submitted, had tried to suppress, and finally discounted as fiction to terminate a deplorable media feeding frenzy that was interfering with the functioning of the police in the course of our duties. Blair Sandburg's actions were directed toward the good of this department and the safety of the community, at some real cost to himself, and I believe his behaviour should be lauded, not defamed."

"Well, that's an interesting interpretation, Captain, but the fact remains the issue was serious enough for the university to expel him as someone unworthy of their doctoral program," Hurley observed dryly.

"Again, I fear you are misinformed, Lieutenant," Simon's voice was icy as he continued, "Detective Sandburg is to be awarded his Ph.D. before the end of this month for what is, I understand, a cogent and highly complimentary dissertation on 'The Thin Blue Line'. I'm not sure that the department would want the publicity of crucifying a man who is publishing a paper that does nothing but paint us as heroes in the modern world."

Simon smiled thinly as he watched the confusion spread across their faces. Moving in for the kill, he took charge of the interview, "Now, let me get a few things straight here. You have been unsuccessfully investigating a crime committed within the walls of this institution for more than three years. Having failed to identify the culprit, you are now investigating a man who has only performed with distinction, and who in the course of his academic career has brought highly favourable attention to our police community. All you have is a document that was clearly planted in his desk, circumstantial at best and credible only if Detective Sandburg is an idiot. Which he is not. To the contrary, he's probably the most brilliant member on our force. Frankly, you look like fools. Since you seem incapable of performing your own jobs, I have decided to apply the remarkable skills of my unit to assisting you in determining who has really been ripping us off. I'm sure you wouldn't want to refuse the assistance of the unit with the highest number of arrests in this city over the past five years. Am I clear?"

It was a declaration of war, pure and simple. The investigators from Internal Affairs were well used to obstruction and resentment as they pursued their duties, but never had either of them ever experienced a situation in which their own credibility was so clearly a part of the issue at hand.

To diffuse the situation, to take it back to a level of détente, Lieutenant Hurley opened his arms in a peaceful gesture as he replied, "Captain, I'm sure you're not suggesting action that would reflect badly on the department. No one wants to give the impression that we are at each other's throats internally. It would lower public confidence in the force."

"I'm suggesting action that will finally identify the perpetrator of these crimes, without having to scapegoat an innocent man who is a model of the values of this force," Simon pushed right back. "So, if you would be so good as to share your files from your investigations over the past three or more years, we can pool our efforts for the collective good. Any problem with that?"

Exchanging looks that gave nothing away, the two investigators stood. "Thank you for your time, Captain," Lieutenant Angela Forbes said formally, "we'll get back to you."

"I'm sure you will," Simon replied, turning away to pick up a file before they'd even left the office.

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

"You were working with Detective Ellison on a case some months ago, in which the suspect allegedly stole canisters of a highly toxic nerve gas and fled to Mexico," Forbes said to Megan Conner. "That suspect is also alleged to have attempted to drown Blair Sandburg, is that not correct?"

"Not quite," Megan replied coolly. "Alex Barnes did drown Detective Sandburg. He was unresponsive and the paramedics had given up trying to revive him."

Smiling silkily, Hurley shook his head. "That's a little dramatic, don't you think? If Sandburg was dead, then how is it that he's still up and walking around? After all, you're not a doctor, he wasn't pronounced dead."

"Ever heard of miracles?" Megan replied scathingly, unamused. "I have some experience with knowing when someone is dead…and believe me, Detective Blair Sandburg was dead. Perhaps working in IA, you haven't the experience to recognize a dead body when you see one. One clue is that they haven't drawn breath for more than half an hour. Another is that there is no heartbeat. The cold, blue skin is also a good indicator. We could arrange a trip to the morgue for you to see one, if that would help."

The IA investigators nearly choked on that response. "Was that a threat, Detective Conner?"

"Threat? By no means. You people do have trouble identifying offers of assistance, don't you?" Megan cut back.

"Be that as it may," Forbes tried to take back control of the interview, "Sandburg was known to have developed an association with this Alex Barnes after having met her here, in the station, while you were questioning her on another matter. Do all you detectives make it a point to develop personal relationships with individuals you meet in the course of duty?"

Megan's eyes were flat as she returned Forbes' gaze. "Detective Sandburg was a civilian at the time, pursuing research on the work of law enforcement officers," she explained with painful clarity. "It was not inappropriate for him to seek the perspectives of those who came into contact with us in the course of our duties. Blair Sandburg was a victim of Alex Barnes, not a confederate."

"Sounds like a falling out amongst thieves to me," Hurley commented sarcastically.

"And that sounds like slander to me," Megan replied coldly. "You'd best be careful of the accusations you make without any basis but your own ignorance."

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

"Detective Ellison, you have been associated with Blair Sandburg for what, something like four years now?" Forbes began with the basics, made wary by the earlier interviews.

"That's correct," Jim replied, watching them like a beast of prey sizing up his next meal.

"And Sandburg has lived with you for most of that time, is that not also correct?" Forbes continued.

"Blair Sandburg and I share a two bedroom condo, if that's what you mean," Ellison replied.

"Does he pay rent?" Forbes inquired.

"I'm not sure what that has to do with your investigation into evidence stolen from lockup, but, yes, he pays rent," Jim replied, finally and for the first time thankful for Blair's insistence on paying his way, no matter how tight his resources had been for most of that time.

"During this period, you've had occasion to evict Sandburg, is that not correct?" Forbes continued.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Ellison demanded angrily, still feeling painfully guilty for his bizarre and unjust behaviour.

"Just answer the question, Detective," Forbes replied.

"Yes, briefly," Ellison snapped.

"Sounds like a lovers' spat to me," Hurley mumbled, being deliberately provocative. The only response was a steely glare that made him twitch.

"This eviction was during the course of your investigation into the activities of one Alex Barnes, was it not?" Forbes came back, evidently choosing to ignore her partner and the last byplay.

"Yes," Jim replied.

"Because Sandburg had a relationship with Barnes that left you, shall we say, uncomfortable with a continued association with him?" Forbes continued.

Jim felt his throat go dry and for the first time, his own composure cracked as he looked away. "Sandburg had nothing to do with the crimes for which we were investigating Alex Barnes," he replied.

"You didn't answer the question," Forbes persisted.

"Yes," Ellison sighed.

"What was that?" Forbes pressed.

"Yes…for a brief time, Sandburg and I had a falling out that was in part related to Alex Barnes. Initially, Sandburg was unaware that she was being investigated and had no reason to suspect that she was guilty of any crime," Ellison clarified, unable to lie and hating himself for it.

"I see…" Forbes murmured with a meaningful gaze at her partner who smirked. Jim bristled at the implications of their non-verbal exchange, but remained silent. Forbes turned back to him as she asked, "And is it not true that Sandburg wrote a document that embarrassed you on national television, interfering with your capacity to do your duties?" she asked.

Ellison rolled his eyes, sighed, and nodded, "Yes…but he didn't release that document…"

"And he subsequently admitted that the document was a complete fraud in a nationally broadcast newscast, is that not true?" Forbes cut in, continuing her relentless inquisition.

"That's correct, but Sandburg…" Jim replied, trying to mitigate the damage.

"Thank you, you've answered the question, Detective," she cut in again, leaving him frustrated and infuriated. "Now, we must admit to some confusion as to why you would refuse any partner but Blair Sandburg, given that you had occasion to evict him from your home because of his association with a felon, and that he had abused your trust and relationship as a colleague, even as a friend, to write a spurious document that was harmful to you. Could you explain why you have anything more to do with this man, let alone choose only to work with him as your partner?" Forbes asked.

"Blair Sandburg is the most honourable, decent, honest man I know. He's brilliant, compassionate and the best police officer I have ever had the privilege to work with. I'd be a fool not to want a man like him for a partner," Ellison replied, emotion in his voice, his face slightly flushed.

"All that, and your 'best friend', too," Forbes observed dryly. "When you put it like that, Detective Ellison, of course we can understand why you'd refuse to work with anyone but him."

"Not to mention, 'room-mate',' Hurley added, in a soft murmur.

"Now, you just hold it right there…" Jim snarled.

"That will be all, Detective, thank you," Forbes concluded the interview. "We have no further questions for you."

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

The interviews with Joel, Henri and Rafe were short if not sweet. The IA investigators verified the details of the night raid to trap the drug smugglers, as well as the fact that the confiscated drugs had been in Blair Sandburg's sole possession for delivery to the evidence storage lockup. Whenever any of the three attempted to make statements in support of Sandburg's character or obvious innocence, they were cut off, the interviews terminated.

Blair was the last detective on the Major Crimes team to be called into their interview room.

"Detective Sandburg, we understand you are to be congratulated…you are soon to be awarded your Ph.D.," Hurley began.

"Yes, thank you," Blair replied as he gazed at them, his expression open and earnest.

"As you are aware," Forbes began, "we are investigating the discovery of the evidence logbook in your desk."

"Yes, so I understand," Blair replied. "I have no idea how it got there."

"Uh huh," Hurley grunted, rolling his eyes. "Well, as you can appreciate, we need more than your word on that. The disappearance of evidence from the lockup has been occurring for some time, a period of time that parallels your association with this police department. During that period of time, you have been involved with other questionable activities."

Hurley looked up from his file to see if Sandburg had anything to say about that, but the younger man remained silent. "No response, Detective?"

"Was there a question?" Blair replied, determined to remain calm, to not let them provoke him.

"No, quite right, there wasn't, but I might have hoped you'd be more cooperative, offering information rather than requiring us to drag it out of you," Hurley snapped.

Blair swallowed, then asked, "What do you want to know?"

"Detective Ellison has confirmed that he threw you out of his apartment because of your association with the felon, Alex Barnes," Forbes advised him. "Is that true?"

"It was a misunderstanding, but yes, essentially that is true," Blair replied.

"Must have been some 'misunderstanding'," Hurley muttered before posing his next question. "What was your involvement with Alex Barnes, Detective?"

"I was meeting with her in the course of my research," Blair replied. "I had no idea of her illegal activities at the time."

"Your research? For the dissertation you wrote?" Forbes asked, referring to 'The Thin Blue Line'.

"That's correct," Blair replied, referring to 'The Sentinel'.

"Why did Alex Barnes attack you, Sandburg?" Forbes demanded.

"Alex thought I had information that might be instrumental in helping the police capture her," Blair replied.

"Must have been some pretty damaging information…where can we access your formal statement outlining just exactly what this information was?" Forbes asked.

"No formal statement was made," Blair replied. "Alex left the country shortly after…attacking me and was later apprehended in Mexico. The file was closed."

The two investigators stared at him for a long moment, their conclusion that he'd suppressed information clear in their eyes. But, they moved along to the other questions on their agenda.

"Not long ago, you advised the nation that you are a fraud and that you lied in the document that described your partner, James Ellison, of having superman type powers," Hurley jumped in. "Why should we believe anything you tell us now?"

Holding their gaze with his own, his face pale and his eyes wide, Blair replied as calmly as he could, "I never made any claims that Jim Ellison is a 'superman'. He's as human as any of us. As to the press conference I had regarding a document I had written, my statements referred to the assumptions that it had been written as a piece of academic research and scholarship. To that extent, the information presented in the document could not be represented as truth. Because of the chaos the improper release of the document had in Jim's life, and its interference with his work here for the department, I felt it was important to quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that the contents of the document were scientifically valid."

"Very noble of you, I'm sure," Hurley sneered. Blair looked away and took a deep breath.

"Now, Sandburg, why would someone plant the logbook in your desk?" Forbes inquired.

"I don't know," Blair replied.

"To the extent that you effectively betrayed your partner by having written that ridiculous piece of nonsense about him, embarrassed him in public and potentially compromised one of his earlier investigations concerning Alex Barnes, how do you account for the fact that he is still prepared to work with you?" Forbes demanded.

"You'd have to ask Jim that. Anything else is speculation," Blair replied.

"Oh, we did," Hurley informed him. "He says it's because you're a honourable man and a great cop."

"But, then, what else would someone say about his 'best friend'?" Forbes asked rhetorically.

"And 'room-mate'," Hurley concluded.

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

Go to Part2