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.

Just Friends!

by Arianna

Response to Crowsworks' challenge… Set around three to six months after Blair comes to stay for a week, this can be funny, sad, or action and H/C; the catalyst should be an older woman saying: "I don't usually approve of these things, but, you two make such a cute couple." The story should be the guys' reactions to the realization that people are thinking this about them. Plus - if Blair is the one who freaks. Plus - if Jim is the one who shrugs it off.

Plus - if you come up with a viable explanation for both that doesn't involve past sexual molestation or non-gen activity. Plus - if Jim's playful touching and teasing is seen and misunderstood by the wrong (possibly violent) person.

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

"Yo, Jim! Wait up, man!"

Ellison turned with a smile, recognizing Earl Gaines, former football star and current detective in Vice, and waited by the door as Earl jogged across the police parking garage. "How're ya doin', Earl?" Jim asked, clapping the younger man on the shoulder. "Heard you got a promotion."

"Uh huh," Gaines grinned. "Thanks to your help in bringing Williams down, I made sergeant. But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about."

"What can I do for you?" Jim asked as they ambled down the corridor toward the elevators, their conversation continuing as they got on the lift with several uniformed officers and all punched their respective floors. At each floor, various people got on and off, police officers and superiors, civilian workers, members of the public, witnesses. Used to the general busyness of the Police Department, neither man took any real notice.

"My Grandma has never stopped asking when you and Sandburg are going to come for dinner, man," Earl replied. "You ducked out six months ago to go check on some guy named Larry, and every week, she asks when are you going to come…and every week, either you or Sandburg are busy. She's giving me grief, man. Just who was that Larry guy, anyway? I don't remember hearing anything else about him."

Ellison snickered as he rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. "Sandburg's former roommate," he smirked. "They both lived with me for a bit after the warehouse blew up, but, uh, Larry had taken off a few days earlier. Anyway, he'd just shown up back at my apartment and…"

"Hey, if Larry is living with you guys, bring him along…" Earl cut in.

But Jim just laughed. "Oh, no. I made Sandburg get rid of Larry at the time. He was an animal…"

Holding up his hands, shaking his head, Earl replied, "I don't need the details, man. So, what about dinner at my Grandma's place?"

Jim chuckled, remembering the feisty old lady, and shook his head. "Your Grandmother doesn't owe us dinner, Earl. We were just doing our jobs…"

"Maybe so, but she doesn't exactly see it that way. C'mon, man. She's a good cook, and it would mean the world to her if you'd…"

"All right, Earl, all right," Jim chuckled, giving in.

"This Sunday?" Gaines pushed, pressing for a commitment…as much as any cop could commit to an evening five nights away.

"Fine, this Sunday," Jim agreed. "What time?"

"I'll see you there at 5:30, and thanks, Jim. Grandma will be very pleased," Earl grinned as he headed off the elevator. "Make sure you bring Sandburg!"

"Don't worry, I'll see that my partner's there," Jim called back as the elevator doors closed.

Neither of them even really noticed the way some of the other cops on the elevator had rolled their eyes at the conversation they'd overheard. It was all just more gossip for the mill, how that tight-ass Ellison had gotten his ‘partner' Sandburg to get rid of his former roommate, Larry, the ‘animal', once Ellison had gotten Sandburg to move in with him. It wasn't that they didn't know some cops ‘lived together', but most were a lot more discreet about it than were Ellison and his long-haired, pretty-boy, hippy-freak, ‘friend'. One uniform mumbled that observation to his partner.

He didn't notice that a civilian in the elevator overheard and stiffened at his words. The cop had been watching Jim, who seemed oblivious to what had just been said.

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

Things were hopping in the Operations Room of the MCU when Sandburg arrived later that afternoon.

"You're late, Chief," Ellison growled, thrusting a stack of files at his partner.

"Yeah, man, sorry. My car stalled out again and I had to have it towed to a garage," Blair replied, taking the files with a look of enquiry at them. "What's all this?"

"You're going to have to replace that hunk of junk, Junior," Jim replied absently as he grabbed more files from his desk. "Come on to the briefing room and I'll fill you in on our latest case."

Blair mumbled something about "She's a classic, man," as he fell in behind Jim, but Ellison just rolled his eyes, having heard that line before. A few minutes later, they had the files spread out on the large table.

"What's the case and what are we looking for in the files, Jim?" Sandburg asked.

"It looks like The Sniper has arrived in Cascade, Chief," Ellison sighed, his jaw tight. "A guy was gunned down outside a convenience store last night. On the surface, the MO looks the same as the murders in northern California and Oregon…the guy's been working his way north. But, it may be a copycat hit. It's too soon to tell for sure."

"Oh, man," Sandburg blew out, a look of startled dismay on his face. "That guy's seriously scary, Jim! How many people has he killed so far?"

"Ten men in four cities," Ellison grated. "These are the files on all the other shootings. We're looking for patterns. Anything to link the victims, the scenes, details in witness reports, as scarce as they are, anything we can find."

"Have you been out to the scene of the shooting here?" Sandburg asked, thinking he should have been with Jim if he'd gone.

"Yeah," Jim replied, holding up his hands when he saw that Blair was about to interject. "There wasn't anything you could have done to help me, Junior. The scene was cold…the guy is careful. Doesn't leave expelled cartridges casings, nobody sees him coming or going, and he chooses open, high spaces so the wind carries off any scent."

Blair nodded and reached for a file. It was going to be a long evening.

After about two hours, Sandburg sighed and closed the last file he'd been assigned. Having already finished his own stack, Ellison was staring with narrowed eyes at nothing in particular as he ruminated about what they had so far, and from the set of his jaw, he evidently didn't like what he was thinking about. There wasn't a lot to go on in the files. A '91 Chevy Malibu, blue, had been spotted in half a dozen of the cases, but no license plate number had been obtained. The weapon was a heavy caliber, semi-automatic, or at least, that was likely from the bullets retrieved from the victims. On four occasions, a tall, middle-aged man, receding hairline, Caucasian, had been noticed in the area, carrying a sack that might have held a broken down sniper's rifle, and twice the man had been spotted getting into the old Malibu. There were even some indications that maybe the guy wanted to be caught. Though the first kill in any given city was a surprise, after that, he taunted the police by sending in a picture of his next intended victim, as if daring the cops to stop him. As for the male victims in four different cities, there didn't seem to be a connection between them. All they had in common was…

"Jim?" Blair called softly, not wanting to break into his partner's thought process, but curious and unable to contain it.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah," Ellison muttered as he mentally returned to the room and began to stack the files. "Maybe it's not a great idea for you to be involved in this one, Chief."

Sandburg rolled his eyes. "Why? Because he typically targets men under thirty with long hair and earrings?"

"Good enough reason for me to keep you far away from him, Junior," Jim replied, his tone hard, the decision made, at least in his own mind.

"Uh, uh," Blair replied, shaking his head. "You can't get rid of me that easily. I don't fit the profile."

"Close enough, Sandburg," Jim replied, refusing to make eye contact.

"Look, it's impossible to know who he's going to hit next, so whether I'm on the case or not doesn't really matter. The fact is, Jim, I'm not what he's looking for…I'm not gay!" Blair protested. "If the suppositions in these files are true, you're going to need me on this case. The only options we've got are to stake out gay bars and try to spot either the possible targets or the sniper. You're going to have a lot of long hours on stakeout, straining to hear conversations and see in the dark…you need me with you."

Ellison swallowed and run his hand through his hair and then rubbed the back of his stiff neck. He didn't like it, but Sandburg was right. The dangers of zoning on stakeouts like that were high. "Okay," he finally agreed reluctantly. "But you stay in the truck, and you do not, I repeat, you DO NOT go into any of those bars. Agreed?"

"I'm down with that, man," Blair acceded, holding up his hands as he surrendered to the conditions. "Believe me, I have no interest in painting a target on my back with a sign that says ‘shoot me'."

"That's not funny, Chief," Jim growled.

"I wasn't trying to be ‘funny'," Blair replied, stacking up his own set of files. "I'm serious, man," he muttered with a shiver. This sniper was scary…and Blair knew as well as Jim did how closely he fit the physical profile of the victims so far.

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

They put out an APB on the '91 blue Malibu, specifying that parking lots and streets around motels, hotels and gay bars be watched, and circulated the very rough, vague, composite drawing of the possible suspect to the uniformed branch and Vice. Then they met with Simon and worked out a roster of stakeouts on the three main gay bars in the city. Rafe and H would take one of the bars, and Simon would arrange with Vice to pick up the third.

So, it was only later, as they were crossing the garage to the truck that Jim remembered his conversation with Earl. "Oh, by the way, Chief, clear your calendar for Sunday evening," Jim said with a grin.

"Why? What's up, Jim?" Blair asked, looking up at his taller friend.

Looping an arm over his partner's shoulder, Ellison drawled, "Well, we've got a date…"

"What date?" Blair exclaimed, bemused by the laughter glinting in Jim's eyes, wondering if his partner had a double date arranged. Blind dates could be an adventure.

"Do you know how long it's been since we've both arranged time off over a weekend at the same time? Six months, Chief! Six months," Ellison teased.

"Jim, I have NO idea what you're talking about," Blair replied. "What date?"

"I'll tell you about it on the way home, buddy," Jim replied, as they separated at the truck.

A couple of uniforms had heard the exchange and shook their heads as they watched the Expedition pull out. "We've got a date!" one mimicked, sarcastically.

His partner glowered as he turned away. It was disgusting. That hippy wannabe cop was blocking a perfectly good detective slot up in MCU, all because he was Ellison's ‘friend', or ‘roommate' or whatever. Sighing, the cop got into the cruiser. The detective slot was attractive, better pay, more freedom of movement, no uniform…but Ellison had never been viewed as the ideal partner, and now even fewer of the rank and file were interested in working with him.

Even if his little friend did finally disappear and left room for a real cop on the roster as Ellison's partner.

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

For the next several days, the Cascade PD's various units collaborated to try to spot The Sniper before another murder occurred. Jim and Blair took the evening stakeout at the most popular gay singles bar in the downtown, but so far, no one had had any luck.

On Friday morning, the picture of the next targeted victim was delivered to the reception desk on the ground floor in a plain, unsealed envelope. Just the picture of a stranger who was marked for death sometime, most likely in the next forty-eight hours.

It was frustrating to not know either the target or the murderer. But the picture was rapidly copied and shown around the places where gays were known to gather.

Before it was time for them to take up their position on one of the bars, Jim was rapidly clearing the perpetual flow of paper that seemed to appear magically in his inbox, endless streams of administrative forms that he couldn't personally see much value in, but someone, somewhere, in their organization thought they had some purpose. Most of them he either moved directly to ‘file thirteen' or passed them along to Sandburg to see if he could make sense of them.

But there was one form that gave him pause. It was the annual call to review the beneficiaries each member of the Force had on file, in the event that circumstances had changed in the past year. Jim had long designated his beneficiary as ‘The Widows and Orphans' Fund', but this time he hesitated before just signing it off. Thoughtfully, his gaze shifted to Sandburg who was diligently plowing through piles of paper, not only for Jim, but also for others in MCU, the kid having become the official guru of bureaucracy in the short time he'd been around. Nodding to himself, Jim turned his attention back to the form and changed the information, to designate Blair as his new beneficiary. Tossing the completed form into his out-box tray, he stood to grab his coat. It was time for them to head back out on their stakeout.

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

That evening, the stakeout proceeded like those earlier in the week as Jim found a parking spot near the club that would allow him to hear what was going on inside. As usual, he told Sandburg to wait in the truck while he walked through the bar, checking out who was inside, chatting up the bartenders and waitresses to see if they'd seen anyone resembling the composite drawing of the suspected sniper, and that evening, Jim also showed the picture of the targeted victim. And, as had happened each of the preceding nights, nobody had seen anyone resembling the men in the pictures.

Jim returned to the truck and they watched who entered and left. The slot he'd chosen allowed them to watch both the front and back of the chic little establishment. Understanding that Jim was reaching with both his hearing and his sight, Sandburg maintained a light contact with the Sentinel, resting one hand on Jim's arm, and from time to time speaking in a low voice to help Ellison focus and keep from zoning.

Three or four times during the evening, Jim would again go inside, in case he'd missed something, in case someone remembered something, while Sandburg waited in the truck. During those times, Blair did his best to watch the comings and goings of the customers, though the darkness made it hard for him to see the back of the bar clearly.

The hours dragged on, slow and frustrating. Radio contact with the other teams on stakeout revealed they weren't having any more luck. Tension mounted, because each minute that slipped away meant an innocent man was one minute closer to dying.

Jim was out of sorts that night, irritated that no one was getting a break in the case. He felt antsy, the hackles on the back of his neck rising more than once during the long evening, and he'd concentrate harder, certain that he was missing something. Sensitive to his partner's irritation and rising frustration, Blair kept his own vigil, ensuring that he remained focused on keeping his Sentinel grounded. It was exhausting for both of them to concentrate so hard, without respite, for so many long hours.

They watched, as they always did, until the bar closed, and then weary, they headed back home. Another night of nothing…no leads, nothing.

"Damn it," Jim growled as he closed off radio contact with the other teams as they also ended their vigils for the night. "Where is this guy?"

"I don't know, man," Blair replied wearily as he got out of the truck. "Like you said, he's careful. We must be missing something…some way he has of picking his targets that doesn't necessarily rely on frequenting the local clubs."

Jim thought about that for a minute, wondering if Sandburg was on to something. For a moment, he felt a thought niggling in the back of his mind, but then it was gone.

Saturday's stakeout was more of the same…long tedious hours with no payoff.

Sunday night, they cycled off stakeout duty, their targeted establishment covered by a team from Vice to give them a break.

So, Sunday evening, Jim and Blair headed over to the Roosevelt Gardens Apartments for dinner with Leila La Croix.

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

"Come in! Come in!" Mrs. La Croix urged them when she answered her door to their knock. "I'm so glad the two of you were finally able to come to dinner."

"It's our pleasure, Mrs. La Croix," Jim replied as they moved into the small apartment. "You're very generous to have invited us."

"Oh, no," she waved off his gratitude. "My, what the two of you did! My Earl would be in jail now, or worse, if you hadn't stood by him, Detective Ellison." Turning her face toward Blair, the feisty woman continued with a certain note of pride, "And well, our Safety Committee wouldn't even exist if you, Mr. Sandburg, hadn't gotten us organized. It's made quite a difference, I can tell you! The young hooligans in this neighbourhood think twice now before they try any of their nonsense on us. We've even begun getting groups organized in the other apartment buildings in this block."

"Please, just call me Blair," Sandburg replied with a light blush of pleasure and a smile. "I'm glad if the idea has worked for all of you."

"And call me, Jim," Ellison echoed. "Earl is a fine police detective and like I said before, you can be very proud of him. Uh, where is Earl…I thought he was meeting us here."

"Oh, he got called back on duty at the last minute," she explained, waving them to seats in her living room, "so he won't be able to join us for dinner." She sighed as she took her own chair in the corner. "You men and women work so hard, and you know? I don't think the people of this city really appreciate all you do for us."

"We're just doing our job," Jim soothed, reaching toward the bowl of nuts she'd put out on the table for her guests. "Thanks aren't ever expected or necessary, Mrs. La Croix."

"It's just good manners to be grateful," she sniffed. "Especially since you face such dangers for us. And call me either Grandma or Leila…Mrs. La Croix is just too formal, don't you think? As if we're strangers, and we're not."

"All right, Leila," Jim acceded with a smile. He liked this spunky old woman, her feisty straightforward manner of speaking, and the way she welcomed them into her home. "Is there anything we can do to help with dinner?"

"No, no!" she exclaimed, actually seeming a bit horrified that guests would be considered to help out. "No, we're having pot roast…I hope you'll enjoy it. Simple, good, hearty food…not fancy, I suppose, but tasty and nourishing."

"That'll be great, Leila," Blair chimed in with a grin at Jim, knowing his partner would appreciate the fact that beef was on the menu. "Would you mind if we played some of your husband's old recordings? I think Jim would enjoy them."

Pleased that the young man had remembered, she turned immediately to reach for the beloved old records and selected one that she placed on the ancient turntable, while Blair explained to Jim that Leila's late husband had been a blues singer of some renown.

They passed a pleasant half hour listening to music while she reminisced about her ‘Joe', and then Leila led them through to the small dining room where she had earlier set their places in anticipation of the evening with them. While Jim poured the wine they'd brought, she dished up the roast, the gravy and the vegetables, and pulled a coleslaw salad from the small refrigerator, while Blair ferried the bowls and platters to the table for her.

"Jim, would you offer up thanks for us this evening?" she asked as she took her place at the table.

A little startled, Jim nodded and cleared his throat. "Ah, sure," he began, then took the hand she offered, and reached to complete the circle by taking Blair's hand as he bowed his head and offered, "Lord, we ask you to bless us this night, and keep us safe. Thank you for the bounty you set before us, and most of all, thank you for the friends you give us to make our lives rich. Amen."

Their hostess smiled with approval as she looked up and reached cautiously for her wine glass. "To friends," she saluted.

"To friends," they echoed, and then Jim carved the meat while Blair assisted Leila pass the salad and the vegetables. Once they were all served, she said, "Blair, Earl tells me that you're not really a police officer, that you go to University."

"That's right," he replied. "I'm working on my dissertation, a study of the police community as a subgroup of society. I've been lucky to get the chance to ride around with Jim and hang out at the Police Department to do the field work observations I need."

"Yes, he said you were ‘an observer'," Leila reflected. "Now I know what that means. But…isn't education expensive? Do they pay you to ‘observe'? How do you make a living?"

"I wish that ‘observers' got paid, but no, I'm just lucky they let me tag along. I'm what they call a Teaching Fellow at Rainier, so I receive a stipend for teaching certain classes and, every once in a while, I'm able to sell an article to a journal, so I get by," Blair replied with a smile.

Nodding that she understood, she replied, "So you teach at the university as well as study as well as work at the police department, Blair…not to mention impersonate welfare officers when you have to get past gang members to visit little old ladies."

"Oh, I've done a number of jobs over the years, to pay off my education, Leila…you'd be surprised," Blair laughed.

"Does your work as a Teaching Fellow pay enough for you to live, though?" she asked with a bit of a frown.

"It's almost a living wage," Blair joked as he helped himself to more vegetables. "This is a terrific meal," he added.

"Thank you," she murmured, but continued her questioning of her guests, to get to know them better. "So, normally, you'd likely have another job, then, if you weren't working with the police as an observer?"

"That's right," Blair affirmed. "But, as a grad student, I get grants for my research that help. Don't worry. I don't starve."

"Yes, but paying rent and such must make things tight, from time to time," she continued, concerned about him.

"Well, I used to live in a warehouse, but it blew up one night. So Jim let me move in with him and he's pretty good about not charging more rent than I can afford," Blair replied. "That makes a big difference."

"I see," she said quietly, cocking her head a little. "So the two of you live together as well as work together?"

"Uh huh," Jim replied, reaching for another slice of the tender beef. "Given the hours we keep, and Blair's research, well, it works out well for both of us."

Turning to the detective, Leila said, "Earl tells me that you used to be in the military, Jim, before you joined the police department.

"That's right," Jim agreed but didn't offer more.

Astute, understanding he didn't want to discuss that subject, she continued with a smile, "Earl says you're a real hero, but he worries that maybe you take too many chances with your life."

Blushing, Jim shrugged, and then realized she couldn't see the gesture. "Uh, well, I think Earl probably exaggerates a little. I just do my job, Leila, like everyone else in the PD."

"But you don't have a regular partner, like the other police do…Blair is your partner, or have I misunderstood?"

"Nope, no other partner, but Sandburg does a good job of watching out for my back. Frankly, until I started working with Blair, I preferred to work on my own," Jim replied.

"So, how long have the two of you been working together?" she asked, curious.

"Almost a year, now, I guess," Jim answered, quirking a brow at Sandburg.

"Yep, and I have to say, I've learned a lot," Blair rejoined the conversation. "And, don't listen to Jim. Earl's right. Jim's dedication to the people of Cascade is amazing…and he never considers his own safety if someone needs his help, or if one of the bad guys needs to be caught."

Jim rolled his eyes at that, but refrained from making any comment hoping that the subject would change if he just stayed out of it. He found the conversation about his character and actions embarrassing, never having really thought that what he did was particularly noteworthy. He'd just been doing his job.

"Well, now, as you know, I'm blind, so it's hard for me to picture the two of you the way I'd like to," Leila said then, unwittingly fulfilling Jim's hope. "I thought while we ate, you might do me the favour of each describing the other. Earl has told me something of you, but I'd like to hear from the two of you, if you don't mind."

"Not at all," Blair replied, grinning as he looked across the table at Jim. "Well, let's see. Jim is tall, just over six feet, and looks like the ex-military and conservative police detective that he is…you know, short hair, his muscles have muscles, and he often projects this really stern expression. He likes to think it's intimidating, and I guess it is, until you know most of it's for effect."

"Be careful, Junior," Jim cautioned with a mock growl.

"Oh, yeah, I'm real scared," Blair chuckled, pushing his hair back behind his ears. Turning back to Leila, he continued, "Jim has blue eyes and light brown hair. He's very strong…actually, he's strong not just in terms of muscles but also in terms of character. Earlier you talked about how the police serve and protect, and I can tell you that Jim takes that oath very seriously. And, well, I've mentioned how he can glower, but I gotta tell you…there's something about him that the vulnerable sense right away. You should see how little kids glom onto him when we visit schools to give the ‘Community Safety' talks. People of all ages and backgrounds seem to instinctively know they can trust him."

Jim flushed a little at the sincere praise, and then began his description of Sandburg to once again redirect attention away from himself. "Careful, Chief, you'll ruin my ‘tough guy' image," he replied and then continued, "Leila, Sandburg here looks a little like a puppy, a spaniel, actually…"

"A puppy?" Blair snorted, vastly amused.

"Don't interrupt, Junior," Jim chided. "As I was saying, he's got all this long, curly dark chestnut hair and huge blue eyes…you know, the kind of eyes you see on those little figurines of children who are too sweet for words…?"

"You mean, the Precious Moment figurines?" Leila asked with a smile. "I remember seeing them years ago."

"Yep, those are the ones," Jim affirmed while Blair snickered. "Wide, innocent, eyes…but half the time, I think he's just putting us on. The kid isn't as innocent as he looks. We have different nicknames for him down at the station. ‘Einstein', ‘cause he's really pretty bright, well, brilliant, actually, though I hesitate to say it lest it go to his head. ‘Hairboy', for obvious reasons, given the unruly curls. ‘Kid', ‘cause he's the youngest member of our team. ‘The Energizer Bunny', because we have no idea where he gets his energy. Sandburg bounces from place to place, he doesn't walk like normal people…and he hardly ever stops talking. And, well, he's not particularly tall, but he holds his own…push him and he's been known to push back. He's only supposed to be an observer, unpaid at that, but he contributes a lot to the cases we work on, and he's terrible at taking instructions to do things like stay in my truck when things get dangerous."

Sandburg snickered again, as he turned to Leila, "He exaggerates. I take instruction pretty well. It's just that my assignment is, as you said earlier, to work as Jim's unofficial partner, which means that sometimes, I have to back him up. Otherwise, he'd be continually going after pretty dangerous guys on his own."

"Well, it certainly seems the two of you are well matched," she said with a nod to herself. "I can hear the affection in how you speak to and of one another. I guess I'm a little old-fashioned, but it seems a good thing the two of you found one another. How do the young ones put it today? Ah, yes. As I say, I don't usually approve of these things, but you two make such ‘a cute couple'. I can certainly tell you're happy together."

Blair choked on a carrot and Jim laughed, partly at her assumption and partly at Sandburg's obvious shock at her statement.

"Why? Have I said something wrong?" she asked, turning her face from one to the other. "Earl told me that it was pretty common knowledge at the police department. Oh, I do hope I haven't embarrassed you!"

"It's what?" Blair exclaimed, stunned.

"Oh, I know what some people think, Leila," Jim cut in smoothly, ignoring Sandburg's startled, "You do?" as he continued, "But Blair and I aren't a couple. We're just good friends."

"Oh, dear," she murmured, flushing. "I'm sorry. But Earl was so sure, and I just wanted to make certain the two of you felt comfortable here, that's all."

"No problem," Jim replied, lifting his glass of wine, grinning at Sandburg who looked like he'd just been sandbagged. "I'm always a little amazed by the assumptions people make, though. I was married for a while to the head of our Forensics Unit and I dated the District Attorney briefly, but no one ever seems to remember that. As for Sandburg, well, I can only suggest you be careful. Blair here will be romancing you, if you give him the least encouragement. He's a terrible flirt."

"Oh, pshaw!" she chuckled, pleased to imagine the lively young Blair flirting with her. It was an amusing thought and Jim saw he'd successfully muted any embarrassment she might feel at having blurted out her assumption. "I'm too old for such nonsense!"

Blair, recovering some aplomb, caught her hand and kissed the back of it gently. "Anyone who cooks like you do, and has such a great collection of music, and is so very beautiful is never too old."

Blushing, she slapped him away, but she beamed at both of them. "You really are nice men," she decided with a brisk nod, thoroughly approving of both of them. "I'm so glad you decided to come and visit tonight!"

"So are we," Blair replied warmly though his smile was gone, and when he reached for his wine, Jim saw that his hand was trembling.

They finished up dinner with a tasty fruit cobbler and cream, and then Jim and Blair insisted on doing the dishes as just service for a wonderful dinner. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly, and the two men took their leave, promising that they would, indeed, be back again to visit before long.

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

As they left the building, Jim checked out the street with a deceptively casual glance, and moved up close to his partner as they headed toward the truck, keeping less than a half-step behind and a little to the side. It wasn't a safe neighbourhood, and as the only two Caucasians on the street, they were being watched with varying degrees of suspicion and hostility. Concerned by Sandburg's uncharacteristic silence, and sensing the tension in his friend, Jim laid a light arm around his shoulders as he asked, "You okay, Chief?"

Blair stiffened a little under the tentative embrace but didn't move away. Swallowing, he grated, "I can't believe people think that…"

But he stopped, shaking his head. In truth, he could believe it. He just wasn't at all happy about it.

"Don't let it get to you, Junior," Jim replied calmly as he unlocked the truck and headed around to the driver's side.

Blair got in and fastened his seat belt, and then turned to his friend as he asked, "What have you heard, Jim? What are they saying about us down at the PD?"

Shrugging, Jim fastened his own belt and started up the truck. "Just the usual crap," he replied, unconcerned.

"Usual crap?" Blair repeated, anger beginning to tinge his voice. "What? Because I've got long hair and wear an earring or two? Because I'm different from the rest of you paramilitary behemoths? Because we live in the same apartment? What? They think that makes us gay? And that doesn't bother you?"

"Not particularly," Jim replied as he drove. "Stick and stones, Sandburg…I learned a long time ago not to worry about what others think. I know who I am."

"This from the guy whose afraid people will think he's a freak if they find out about his senses!" Blair exclaimed. "And don't give me that ‘sticks and stones' stuff. Words do hurt, and can do a lot of damage. Sticks and stones get thrown in the first place because of the hate or fear words have generated. Damn it, Jim. This could impact on your career! What if some narrow-minded schmuck decides you don't ‘fit' their image of the perfect cop? What if that guy doesn't back you up someday when you need it?"

"Hey, take it easy," Jim replied. "It's no big deal, all right? Sure, I know there are bigots on the Force, so what? They'll do their job, whether they like it or not."

"I can't believe you don't care that people think you're gay!" Sandburg blurted. "I mean you're the quintessential Alpha Male, man. It's gotta burn."

"Maybe it would have once," Jim admitted. "But, well, I saw good men having to hide the truth about themselves when I was in the army, and I came to understand how stupid it all is, all this blind prejudice. A man isn't defined by who he sleeps with, but by what he stands for and is willing to give his life for. If thinking I'm gay bothers some people, so be it. Maybe, just maybe, they'll figure out some day that it doesn't matter a damn whether I am or not. What matters is how I do my job, and the kind of human being I am. Frankly, I'm a little surprised that it bothers you so much. I'd've thought that with your ‘love is beautiful' philosophy, that you could care less what people think."

Blair shifted to stare out the windshield. "It always bothers me when people make assumptions and then judgments on superficial things, like appearance, Jim. Of course I know that my hair and the way I dress might confuse some people, but…I hate that. I hate that it matters. I don't want to change everything about who I am to fit in down at the station. And I don't want what they think about me to have negative repercussions for you. It's been hard enough to find my place there, when I'm so different, but if most of them think that I'm gay, and that I'm only there because we supposedly have a ‘relationship', well, then, that explains why so many resent me…"

"Are you getting hassled?" Jim demanded, made angry by that possibility. Though he'd heard the muttered comments in the hallways, he'd never overheard Sandburg being given a hard time.

"No, not directly," Blair sighed. "It's just that, well, I can sense it in the looks I sometimes get at the PD, or at the crime scenes, hear it in the begrudging way they cooperate, as if they wish I'd just disappear, or something."

"Look, Chief, anyone gives you a hard time, I want to know it," Ellison grated.

"Oh, yeah, right, and you'll protect my honour? Defend me? I'm not sure that would help, Jim," Sandburg shot back. "I'll deal, don't worry…it just bugs me, you know?"

Jim frowned, finding Sandburg's voice tone, which indicated grudging acceptance of the situation, and his pounding heartbeat, which signaled deep anxiety, were at odds. "Don't try to snow me, Sandburg. Something about this has really got you worked up. What's up? What's really bothering you about this?"

Blair cut Jim a quick glance and bit his lip. Sighing as he turned away to look out the side window, he murmured, "It doesn't matter, I guess…doesn't change anything. But the timing on finding out about this now really sucks, man. I mean, we've got a sniper in town, targeting guys who look a lot like me…and I guess it's pretty shallow, but I hadn't really been worried you know, because I don't fit a key element of the profile. But…if most of the PD believes I'm gay, who knows what anyone thinks or believes? I guess, I guess I'm just scared. Stupid, huh?"

Reaching out to give Blair's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, Jim said quietly, but sincerely, "We'll get this guy, don't worry. There's no reason to think he even knows you exist, let alone anything worse. I'm sorry, sorry you're scared, and sorry that some lowlifes in the department are giving you a hard time. But things'll work out fine, you'll see."

Blair just nodded, but he crossed his arms across his chest and Jim knew the posture, knew it meant that Sandburg was feeling vulnerable…and scared. Deliberately changing the subject, he observed, "Over dinner, you said you'd normally be working another job…that finances are tight. How tight, Junior? Do you need some help?"

Distracted by the turn of the conversation, Blair looked back at Jim, a soft smile of gratitude playing on his lips. "No, I'm okay, Jim. But…thanks. I appreciate the concern. Besides, imagine what people'd say if they heard you were supporting me, too!"

Snorting, Ellison nodded, letting it go for now. But he reflected that he was glad he'd decided to change the beneficiary designation on his benefits form. If anything happened to him, he wanted to be sure Sandburg would be okay. With all the kid was doing for him, helping him with his senses and the job, well, Jim figured it was just about the least he could do. More importantly, though, it was his job to keep Sandburg safe, to make sure his friend's work supporting him didn't put Blair in any more danger. The kid had already faced enough life threatening risks in the last six months to last a lifetime.

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

The next morning, the stranger in the photograph, Mark Hennessey, a young firefighter, was gunned down outside his place of work.

Jim swore when the murder was reported, furious that The Sniper had been allowed to kill again, that they hadn't yet been able to stop him. The uniforms on the scene had obtained some basic information from Hennessey's colleagues…that he was a good guy, had no enemies, was well liked, and they'd gotten his address. Some of the dead man's colleagues thought that he might have had a roommate, but they weren't sure. Some recollected that one of his good friends outside of work was an intern at Cascade General, Jeff Sturges.

Jim circled by the scene of the crime for a quick look, to see if the killer had finally gotten careless. But, no. Once again, no one had seen anyone suspicious. There was no evidence left on the roof of the apartment complex from which he must have shot Hennessey, given the trajectory.

Looking at the body, Jim felt his gut churn. Lying face down, his long, dark curls obscuring his face, the guy could have been Sandburg. Once again, Jim felt anger clutch at his chest and stiffen his jaw. This had been a good man, someone who'd risked his life to safeguard the well-being of others. He sure as hell didn't deserve to die, not like this. Not now.

Ellison called the hospital and learned that Dr. Sturges wasn't due on shift until later that afternoon, so Jim headed to the late Mark Hennessey's apartment to see what he might learn there. When he arrived, he found a clean, well-maintained, middle-income building, not fancy but in a good neighbourhood. Getting the superintendent to let him in, they went up to the eighth floor and that's when he learned that Jeff Sturges was the other occupant of the flat.

When Jeff answered his knock, Jim told the superintendent that he could handle it from that point, dismissing the older man, and then flipped open his badge as he turned to Sturges. "I'm Detective Jim Ellison. Could I come in for a few minutes? I need to talk to you."

Mystified, Jeff waved him in and closed the door behind Ellison, then led the detective into the living room. It was comfortable, if not richly furnished, with a couple of good paintings on the wall, a large bookcase with a sound system and television, and pair of matching couches, one facing the wall of windows with a view of downtown, and the harbour, and the other facing the wall unit. "Have a seat, Detective," Jeff offered. "How can I help you?"

Swallowing as he sat on the couch facing the wall unit, hating being the bearer of bad tidings, Jim waved to the couch opposite. "Please, sit down, Dr. Sturges. I'm afraid I have bad news."

Sturges looked confused, but sat as bidden, his expression questioning. "Bad news? I don't understand."

Taking a breath, Jim replied quietly, "I'm sorry to have to tell you, but Mark Hennessey was murdered this morning outside the fire station."

Sturges just stared at him, not able to take it in at first, not wanting to believe it. His face went pale as shock claimed his expression and his eyes darkened. And then, he shook his head, swallowing convulsively, as he protested, "No, there has to be some mistake. Mark…Mark can't be dead…"

"I'm sorry," Jim said again. "I know this is a shock."

"What…what happened?" Sturges asked, a little breathlessly, as if he was having trouble breathing.

"He was shot by a sniper. It would have been very quick…he'd never have known what hit him," Jim replied steadily, letting the other man find his bearings, absorb the initial shock.

Jeff looked away, out the window, as he crossed his arms, a low, unconscious moan of protest deep in his throat. He took a shuddering breath and blinked rapidly, as if needing to clear his eyes. But control eluded him, and his lip trembled as he curled forward, his hands coming up to cover his face, to hide his tears.

Jim stood and moved into the kitchen to get him a glass of water, and then came back to sit down beside him, placing a sympathetic hand on Jeff's shoulder as he murmured, "Here, drink this. Is there someone I can call to be with you?"

Shaking his head, Sturges sniffed and wiped his face, struggling to regain control. "S-sorry," he stammered. "I just can't…Mark…Oh, God…Mark!"

"I know this is hard," Jim said quietly, "but I need your help if we're going to catch this guy before he kills more innocent people."

Sniffing again, Jeff turned reddened eyes to Ellison. "More people? What do you mean? How many were killed this morning?"

"Today, only Mark. But the killer is suspected of ten other deaths in three other cities. He targets men who looked like Mark…men who are gay," Jim replied, watching Sturges for his reaction.

"Gay?" Jeff repeated, shaking his head, surprised by the detective's knowledge, but seeing no reason to deny it…it would be like denying Mark, how important he was…had been...and Jeff wasn't prepared to lie about how much they'd meant to one another. Not now. In his shocked grief, however, he was unaware that he was still using the present tense as he continued, "But…how would the killer know? Nobody knows. Nobody. Not our families…not the people we work with. We told everyone we're just friends."

Ellison frowned, and reflected to himself that other ‘partners' had said the same thing, that the relationships had been discreet, even secret; he'd seen it in the reports in the files. "Someone, somewhere, had to know. Please. I need your help to figure this out. Who would know, or guess?"

Shaking his head, looking away, Jeff struggled with trying to concentrate in the midst of his terrible grief. "People who knew we shared an apartment might have wondered, but that's not all that unusual. Firefighters aren't that well paid, and interns barely make enough to live, so it makes sense to have a roommate to share expenses. We've been together for a year. I met Mark during my tour in Emergency. He'd been brought in with smoke inhalation and, well, we became friends…more than friends. This was the real thing, you know? We'd even changed our wills, and our beneficiary forms to make sure the other one would be taken care of, if anything…if anything ever happened…"

But his voice cracked, and he couldn't continue, his hand covering his mouth to hold back the sob in his throat.

Jim thought about the information. "Do you have the same lawyer? The same insurance company?"

Sighing, Jeff nodded. "Muriel Dawkins at Harkins and Associates is our lawyer. I'm covered by insurance at the hospital, Pacific Life. I think the Fire Department was covered by the same corporate insurers, I'm not sure," he murmured, suddenly feeling utterly exhausted.

"Okay, thanks, that may help a lot," Jim replied, then winced a little. Nothing was going to help Mark Hennessey now…and nothing was going to help Jeff Sturges cope with his loss. "Are you sure there isn't someone I can call to be with you?"

"No, I'll be all right," Jeff sighed, again wiping his face. "Where…where will they take him? Do I need to…to identify him…his body?"

"No, but you can let the funeral home know that they'll need to contact the City Morgue to arrange to transfer his body in a day or two," Jim explained. "I'm sorry…very sorry, that this happened to your friend."

"Thank you," whispered Sturges as he stood to show Ellison out.

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

Back at the station, Jim began a new search, contacting other police departments, and learning that the victims who had been specifically identified in advance by photos had all either been registered with Pacific Life, or their ‘partners' had held a policy with that firm.

Knowing they finally had a solid lead, Jim wrapped on Simon's door and entered when his boss looked up from the file he was studying. "I think I've finally got a break on this case, Captain," Jim said as he sat down in front of the desk. "I found a common denominator…Pacific Life Insurance. All the targeted victims can be connected back, listed as beneficiaries on the insurance policies."

Simon sat back, as he took in the information and realized its significance. "Good work, Jim, very good work." But then the Captain frowned as his gaze shifted away as if something about the information bothered him.

"What?" Jim asked.

Cutting a look at Ellison, Simon reached for his phone and punched in a number. "Shirley?" he said when it was answered by the Personnel Manager. "What company carries the insurance for PD staff? Uh huh," he grunted, his lips thinning into a hard line. "Has any rep from Pacific Life been in recently?" Nodding again, and then a grimace, as Simon grunted, "Damn…all right. Look, Detective Ellison is coming downstairs to talk to you."

Turning back to Jim as he hung up the phone, Simon said to the detective who was already standing and heading toward the door, "A rep's been here off and on since early last week. He left about two hours ago, saying his work here was done."

"I'm on it!" Jim called over his shoulder as he loped across the Operations Room to the elevator.

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

Shirley Melrose took one look at the composite drawing of the suspected sniper and nodded. "That's him, but the picture isn't very good. He's in his mid-fifties, I'd say, with gray hair, and he's about six feet tall, in good shape. His face is leaner, tougher…"

"What's his name and do you know which hotel he's been staying at?" Jim asked, cutting her off.

"Miles Reynolds, is his name, but I don't have any idea where he's staying," she replied.

"What was he doing here?" Ellison demanded.

Shrugging, she pushed a harried hand through her hair, as she replied, "He looked over our record keeping, took copies of the forms of the new hires, and those changing the policies or entitlements of existing staff," she replied.

"Oh, my God," Jim murmured, looking away, remembering the change he'd just made the week before, naming Sandburg as his beneficiary. "Did he say anything while he was here, anything about his work…anything at all?"

She thought for a moment, then looked up at Jim, confusion in her eyes, as she answered, "I remember…I remember he asked me who you were one morning last week. We'd been riding up in the same elevator, and you'd been talking to Earl Gaines, I forget about what. After we got off the elevator, he asked who you were…"

But she was cut off when the phone on her desk rang, and Jim nodded for her to take it. "Yes, he is," she replied as she handed the receiver to Jim, "It's Captain Banks."

"Yes sir?" Jim said, feeling anxiety tighten in his gut.

"Jim, you'd better get back up here…another photo has been delivered," Simon said, his voice heavy with worry.

"Don't tell me…" Jim stammered, knowing from something in his friend's tone that this was bad.

"I'm afraid so," Simon replied starkly.

Jim handed the phone back to Shirley and said over his shoulder as he rushed out, "Go up to Forensics and help the composite artists put together a better likeness…as fast as you can!"

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

Though everything moved quickly after that, Jim felt as if reality was playing out in slow motion, like some kind of nightmare. He tried to reach Sandburg at the University, but Blair wasn't in his office. A second call was placed to the University's Security Office, to have Sandburg found and kept in a secure place until Ellison arrived. APB's were put out on both Sandburg and Miles Reynolds, and patrol cars began to converge on the campus even as Jim was racing to his truck. He cursed at being held up in traffic, slamming a frightened, impatient fist against his steering wheel, but his flashing lights and siren cleared the way as he drove as quickly as humanly possible toward Rainier and Hargrove Hall.

All the time, all the damned time they'd been staking out that club, The Sniper had been watching them. There were three pictures this time, as if the guy had been gloating at their inability to recognize him, to capture him. One of Blair alone, at Rainier, in the parking lot as he headed toward his car…but another had been taken in early evening, before dark, of Blair in the truck, his hand on Jim's arm as he grounded Ellison and helped him focus his senses. The third was a casual shot of the two of them walking down the street outside the loft, Jim's arm draped casually over Blair's shoulders as they'd headed out to Leila La Croix' place for dinner.

Sick with fear, Jim realized the guy had been playing with them, marking time until he was ready to skip town right after his last murder in Cascade. Swallowing the bile in the back of his throat, Ellison recalled Blair's words of the night before…recalled his fear of being a target. And Jim remembered assuring his friend that he was in no danger, when all the time, Ellison thought bitterly, he might as well have drawn the target on Blair himself.

As Jim tore into the campus drive, his eyes raked the grounds, searching for any sign of Blair. Pulling into the parking lot outside the building where Sandburg worked, Jim spotted him finally, laughing with a student and then looking up at the sound of the sirens, surprise on his face when he recognized Jim's truck.

Even before he'd brought the Expedition to a halt, Jim was waving an arm out of his window, shouting, "Get down!"

But Blair was distracted just then by a Security Guard who yelled his name and started to run across the grounds toward him.

Jim jumped out of the truck, his gun in his hand as he raced toward Blair while gazing hurriedly around at the rooftops, shouting desperately, "Sandburg! Take cover! GET DOWN!"

A flash of light on metal, and then Ellison spotted Reynolds, on the roof of Hargrove Hall. He aimed and shot, just as the sound of another shot shattered the afternoon peace of the campus. People screamed and dove for cover, patrol cars, sirens keening, rolled into the lot behind Jim. Suddenly, it was chaos.

But Ellison was oblivious to everything but seeing The Sniper jerk at being hit, and then tumble forward, to hang limply over the balustrade that lined the roof's edge. Turning swiftly, Jim sought Blair and thought his heart might stop when he spotted his best friend lying crumpled and unmoving on the ground.

"Sandburg!" he screamed as he raced forward to drop down onto one knee beside his partner, his gut churning at the smell of blood. Too scared to reach out with his senses, he quickly, if gently, turned Blair, supporting his head and shoulders with one strong arm, as his gaze raked Sandburg's body, searching for the wound, while his hand moved to his friend's throat, to check for a pulse.

Sandburg moaned softly, his eyes blinking open even as Jim sagged with relief at finding the necessary heartbeat. "Easy, buddy," Jim murmured, as he checked out the wound, high in Blair's shoulder. Closing his eyes in wordless thanks that it wasn't life-threatening, Jim pulled Blair in a little tighter, a little closer to his chest. "You're going to be okay, Chief…you're going to be okay."

Overhearing, one of the uniforms muttered sarcastically to his partner, "Well, isn't that a good thing?"

Jim's head came up and he looked around, pinning the police officer with a glacial stare that boded ill for the other man, who flinched at the message in Ellison's eyes.

"Call the EMTs, and then get things under control here," Jim ordered the uniformed cops coldly, but turned back to his partner when Sandburg clutched at his jacket and moaned again.

"Jim?" Blair ground out, trying to make sense of what just happened. "It was him…The Sniper, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, Chief, it was…but he won't hurt anyone again," Ellison replied. "I'm sorry, Blair…"

But Sandburg shook his head, wincing at the pain the action caused. "No," he muttered, his teeth gritted. "I dropped, when you yelled…you saved my life. Thanks, man."

"Maybe," Jim allowed, his expression stark with guilt, only too aware that it had been his words, his actions, his failure to protect, that had put Sandburg in jeopardy in the first place.

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

While Sandburg was in surgery, the wheels of justice turned. Though Reynolds was dead, there was a need to match him against the other killings, to make the links…and to find out, if only for the files, why a simple insurance adjuster, a decorated veteran of Vietnam, had suddenly become a killer. It was a sad story of grief transformed by rage into a kind of madness. Reynolds' only son had died of AIDS six months before, about two years after moving in with a young man with long, curly hair. Over and over, Reynolds had been exacting revenge for the death of his son…if the connection had been made after his first victim had been killed, his son's lover, then so many others would still be alive. In a twisted way, his practice of sending pictures of the intended victims to the police had quite likely been the gesture of a once sane and decent man who knew he had to be stopped, even if he could no longer stop himself from committing such atrocities.

Simon joined Jim at the hospital, finding him in Sandburg's room, waiting for the young grad student to wake up.

"How's he doing?" Banks asked quietly as he strode in.

"He'll be all right," Jim replied wearily, avoiding Simon's eyes. "His shoulder needed a bit of repair work, but with some physio, they say he should recover fully."

Shaking his head, Banks laid a strong hand on his detective's shoulder. "This wasn't your fault."

"Yeah, in a way, it was," Jim replied, his voice tight. "I guess Reynolds overheard me, days ago, in the elevator, joking with Earl Gaines about Sandburg, and his last ‘roommate', Larry. And…and I know what a lot of people around the station have been thinking, saying for months now, but I never did anything to counter the rumours, the assumptions about…well, about me and Sandburg. Worse, I changed my beneficiary last week, thinking if something happened to me, I could make sure he'd be fine…a repayment of sorts, for all his help. I might as well have shot him myself."

Snorting, Banks shook his head, "That's garbage and you know it. Hell, Jim, you were doing something nice for the kid, not trying to hurt him. You couldn't know…"

"I should have spotted Reynolds, Simon," Jim growled. "The guy stalked us, and I didn't even see him!"

"Stop!" a weak voice murmured from the bed, raspy and dry. Clearing his throat, blinking, Blair finally focused on Jim. "Simon's right. This wasn't your fault, Jim."

"Hey, Chief," Ellison murmured, reaching for the cup of ice chips and spooning a couple into his friend's mouth.

Grateful, Blair nodded weakly, still feeling disoriented from the anesthetic. Swallowing, he grinned a little dazedly as he asked, "You made me your beneficiary?"

Flushing a little, Jim nodded. "Yeah, well, you've been helping me a lot and…"

"Thanks, Jim," Sandburg cut in, a little embarrassed that Jim would have done such a thing for him. Murmuring so softly that only Jim could hear the words, he added, "I appreciate it, even though I hope I never collect." To lighten the mood, turning to Simon, he teased playfully, "Hey, Simon, if something unfortunate does happens to Jim, you know, like I don't watch his back quite close enough or let him zone, well, you know it'll be an accident, and not just 'cause I could use the money, right?"

Simon laughed, and Jim snorted. "Careful, kid. I know where you live," Ellison warned, feigning a scowl.

Sandburg just grinned as he reached for Jim's hand. Grasping the strong fingers, he sobered as he said, "If you hadn't figured it out, and got there in time, he would have killed me. It's not your fault, what other people think. It's not your fault for wanting to make sure I'm okay if something happens to you. You didn't hurt me…you saved my life by yelling to me to take cover. I'm okay because of you…I'm okay. Got it?"

"Got it," Jim repeated, but his throat was tight. It had been too close. It could have ended so much worse. Sandburg could so easily have died earlier that day. Reaching out to ruffle his friend's curls lightly, he said, "But you were right, too, Chief. Words can hurt, can do damage. We're going to find a way to set people straight…"

"Shouldn't be too hard," Simon reflected wryly with a wink at Blair. "If Sandburg keeps cutting a swath through all the eligible women down at the PD, the jackasses will soon figure out that their assumptions are wrong. Though, what the ladies see in you…" Simon shook his head, as if at a complete loss.

"They love the hair, man," Blair murmured with a soft grin and then yawned. "Trust me, they love the hair…" he sighed again, as he drifted off to sleep.

Finis

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