Author's Notes: No profit, copyright laws bent but not broken; beta'd by the ever-patient Arianna and graciously hosted by Starfox.

Spoilers: Post-TSbyBS and Blair is a detective; takes place after my story, "The Gift of Youth", but stands alone.

Warnings: Language

Summary: Blair's joy in obtaining his Ph.D. is muted by an unusual problem at work.

The Hamantaschen Defense

by Roslyn

********************
Friday, 9:30 A.M.; Median of Highway 104, Outskirts of Cascade:

"My arms are getting tired." Blair lowered the speed gun from its functional position and rotated his shoulders. Jim brought out a stopwatch and clicked it.

"What's that for? We're checking their current speeds, not how quickly the cars do a furlong."

"The stopwatch is to time your complaint list. You have exactly five minutes to catalogue just how much doing this 'sucks' and then you can just 'suck it up' like a good little soldier. I'm not happy about it either, but this is the assignment and the day won't go by any faster if we whine about it."

"The DAY? We could be looking at three or four days of this crap, man."

"Three minutes left, Chief. Make the most of it."

"You are such a dick."

"Two minutes, forty seconds and counting." Jim's lips twitched in spite of his attempts to maintain his stern Ranger facade. This was looking to be a fairly simple, if boring, job and they could both relax as soon as his partner settled down to it. The kid was incredibly jumpy these days. He was also being characteristically silent about the larger issues while being annoyingly vocal about the small stuff.

"Complaining is healthy."

"Maybe, for the complainer. The complainee winds up with ringing ears and indigestion. And I'd rather beat the tar out of the complainer than live on aspirin and Maalox for two days."

Blair snorted, unable to maintain his 'abused party' demeanor in the teeth of Jim's determined - and rare - good humor about it all. "Okay, I'll shut up."

"Promises, promises."

"I meant about the serious injury this situation is doing to my rotator cuff, not to mention my self-esteem. This speed gun is heavy shit."

Jim broke out in a robust laugh. "Your self-esteem? Don't be such a snob, Sandburg. The troopers enforce laws that save a hell of a lot of lives on the highways. Anyway, it's the perfect cover for us to watch for that truck caravan. It's expected that there'll be a car here, looking for speeders, and I'll be able to see if the driver is the guy our informant fingered. But if there's no speed gun in view, it'll spook the perps."

"Yeah, tell me about it! I'm having nightmares about how we're gonna explain to the troopers at the weigh station up ahead how you could see which drivers have to be detained. You brought a zoom lens designed for a brownie camera, not covert ops!" Blair smirked, despite his real dismay at the badly chosen equipment that was supposed to serve as the 'cover story' for Jim's use of sentinel sight on this particular bust. "And as far as 'attachments' go, you ought to be embarrassed about coming up so 'short' in the lens department here." The duck was well-timed.

"Never mind my 'short-comings', Junior. Not my fault that you keep expecting our tech department to be like 'Q" in those Bond movies. Just doesn't work that way in real life."

"Well, when we break for the day, I'm heading for a camera store and renting us something we can actually cite in a report that might justify the search and seizure process here."

"Good enough, Chief. I'm sure we can get reimbursed for it. And your three minutes are long gone so quit the complaints. You can always use the speed gun outside the car if you want to walk around and stretch a bit. No need to keep it raised unless there's a truck coming. Simon isn't really expecting us to go after speeders." Jim settled back against the headrest, keeping an eye on the road. Blair took his advice and walked around the median for a bit.

Highway 104 wasn't among the more impressive specimens of Washington 's road system but seemed to be a possible route for the smuggling of morphine and heroin into Canada. The Governor had been notified of the problem and involved the mayors of several cities and towns along the suspected pipeline. That reached directly into the offices of various police captains. Simon had stated the fact more baldly when he assigned his crack team to the duty. "Shit runs downhill, Gentleman."

The restless rookie was pleased when the lead truck finally made its appearance right after lunch.

"There's our guy, Sandburg." Jim let Blair take the driver's seat and radioed the weigh station to let this guy go ahead, but to detain the two trucks following him. Once the lead driver noticed his pals weren't following, he would make contact with his 'higher ups' in the smuggling chain. Hopefully, those conversations would be fairly easy for Jim to detect with his senses and, ostensibly, with some listening device the weigh station officer would plant before sending that truck on its way. The devices rarely worked all that well, but made a satisfactory cover story for sentinel hearing.

Arriving at the weigh station, the partners parked their official vehicle. Going behind a storage shed, they made a quick change out of their state trooper uniforms into 'civvies'. Only a few minutes behind the lead rig now, they took off after him in Ellison's pickup. Jim had made note of the type of dust patterns left by the tires so they wouldn't get sidetracked during periods when they lost sight of the truck itself.

Jim updated their Captain by cell phone. "We're following the lead truck up 104. Unfortunately, it looks like he's headed for Port Angeles."

"What's wrong with Port Angeles?" Blair's question was overheard by Simon, who chuckled at his ignorance.

Jim snorted in disgust. "It's a proctologist's dream. If that isn't the ass end of Washington State, I don't know what is."

Laughing, Simon let them know that the remaining two semis were being held for thorough inspection but the drivers were either ignorant of their boss's activities or very good actors.

They hit Port Angeles ninety minutes later, pulling up into the same motel as the trucker. Removing the hair tie and donning a particularly bright vest, Blair checked in for the detectives, knowing he looked nothing like the 'state trooper' he'd been earlier that day.

Upon entering the room, stale with old cigarette smoke and an ashtray next to the 'No Smoking' sign on the nightstand, Jim went into the bathroom. Blair promptly booted up his laptop to check on their current locale. Surprised at what he saw written at the town's website, he called through the bathroom door. "Hey Jim! Don't drink the water here, man. The website says the water doesn't meet state standards for consumption, so don't take any chances. No telling how far off it might be. Come to think of it, don't take a shower, either."

A toilet flushed, the bathroom door opened and a disgruntled sentinel emerged. "Are you telling me that the city admits to it?"

"Sure. They aren't breaking any laws if they disclose it, I think. Not sure about that. Of course, the website also claims the water is safe enough unless you have health problems. Still, the standards for drinking water in this country aren't exactly stellar in terms of chemical contaminants. I'd hate to see what passes for 'safe' in this town. Let's not test the theory, okay?" He took Jim's silence for assent. These days, Jim generally bowed to his shamanic rulings in matters of health. Mostly. Okay, maybe silence wasn't necessarily a sign of assent. "Uhm, Jim?"

"Got it. I'll pretend we're in Mexico and stick with the bottled stuff. But I don't see why we can't take showers."

"You absorb toxic crap through the skin and the membranes of your nose, eyes and mouth. The steam from the hot water sends it directly to your lungs as well. It isn't just about drinking."

"Well, I take showers at home and you don't know what all is in that hot water heater."

Blair laughed at that statement. "Yeah, I do as a matter of fact. I had it tested."

Jim's mouth opened in a rare, if rather uncouth, exhibition of surprise. "You amaze me."

"Well, it's pretty cheap to do and I need all the data I can get because YOU, my friend, don't generally tell me when you feel a bit under or over par. And, I am a detective."

"So, you check every detail with or without my knowledge and consent."

Blair wasn't sure how that was meant. "You're upset that I tested our water?"

"No, of course not. It's just that you go to such lengths that ..." Jim gave up trying to put it into words.

"Jim, there aren't any lengths I wouldn't go to if it made a difference in your life but this isn't a biggie, really. People are testing their water all the time, man. It's really polluted now and the cities put a hell of a lot of chlorine or chloramine into the water supply to disinfect it. If that doesn't make you sick, the chloramine leaches lead from the solder used to connect the pipes and that winds up in the tap. Then there's all the chemicals that don't get filtered out in the treatment plants like pesticides and pharmaceutical waste. Everyone is exposed to lots of stuff all the time, so it makes sense for the home to be as free of it as possible. That massage shower head I bought you for Christmas last year? It's also a water filter that takes care of all that crap."

"I don't recall that little detail coming up when you watched me install it."

"Well, what difference would it have made to you? The massage settings were the attraction there, right?"

"But why not tell me?"

Blair sighed. "You were going through a stubborn phase that week because Simon and I made you stay home for a day with that flu. I didn't think telling you about another health measure was going to get that shower head installed any quicker."

"It was just a cold and you guys made me stay home for two days, a pure waste of leave time." The aggrieved tone was wasted on Blair, who hadn't felt at all guilty about negotiating Jim's removal from the Bullpen. "So, just when were you planning on telling me about the filter?"

"Next week, actually. The filter needs replacing every six months and I really suck at home repairs." Blair smiled, a more diplomatic measure than chanting the, 'nah-nah-nah-nah-nah' melody that was currently at the forefront of his brain. Yes, there was more than one way to skin a sentinel.

Jim shook his head in resignation. "I give up, Chief. I think I can live quite happily with not knowing everything you're up to with the health stuff. So, here is my blanket 'thank you', for all of the unknowns in the past and the future. And don't let it go to your head."

The warm tone and accompanying smile belied the curtness of the words being uttered.

Blair laughed outright. "Not likely to happen, Jim. And you are very, very welcome."

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

Jim was back behind the wheel, having overheard sufficient information to pass on to the Canadian authorities regarding the trucker's pipeline and connections. The perp had called his bosses and been forced to detail their truck-to-boat route for getting the drugs into that country, since his own helpers were absent. Jim was very satisfied to be returning to his comfortable apartment, not to mention his filtered shower water. He was contemplating a suitable dinner to follow this lousy, three-hour drive when his complacency was rocked by a tentative statement from his partner.

"Jim, you do remember that Naomi is coming to town for a week, beginning July first?"

A sidelong glance adequately communicated Jim's less than joyous anticipation of the chaotic occupation of the loft by the peripatetic Naomi Sandburg. Blair took pity on the tired, hungry and somewhat grungy man and opted for reassuring him of his upcoming, peaceful July vacation. "She won't be staying with us this time around. Got a friend just outside of town, who needs a house and dog sitter for a week."

"Great! It's always good to see your Mom, Chief." The statement appeared to be a hearty and heartfelt expression of relief.

"Okay, okay, you're right but I'm glad she's coming to visit anyway. I'm going to invite her to come to the picnic with us." The Cascade PD had a family day every July Fourth at Roosevelt Lake. Jim had always skipped it until Blair had coaxed him to attend three years ago and assumed the tradition would continue.

"Great. Then you and Naomi can take care of the cooking for our contribution."

"You are so mercenary, man!"

"I prefer to think of it as practicing economy of motion."

"Yeah, this from a man who works a sixty-hour week. I guess you're entitled to be a little jealous of your downtime. How about you do the shopping and we do the cooking?"

"If you do the kitchen clean-up, too, you've got a deal."

"Speaking of shopping, I got a call from Gabriel, Mrs. Oster's son? His mom's arthritis is acting up just now and he's been called out of town. Mind if we make a quick stop and pick up some stuff for her on the way home?"

"Sure, we need groceries anyway." Jim was as fond of their elderly neighbor as Blair and checked on her daily with his senses, if one of them hadn't actually seen her that day. The widow owned the loft apartment next door but was having trouble with the stairs these days.

"Let's go to the market on Third Avenue then. Next door is that Hungarian bakery where I got the rugalach she liked so much that last time she came to dinner. And I've got a yen for some sweets myself for the weekend."

"Don't forget that sentinels use up a lot of calories on sensory control."

"Hmm, we can always test that theory by comparing the relative rapidity of weight loss in dieting versus fasting modes." Blair gave out a mad scientist laugh before handing Jim a granola bar from his ever-present backpack. He sometimes thought of it as his 'Sentinel Diaper Bag', since the contents were nearly all for Jim's needs, but that was an analogy that would never be articulated aloud. "I just hope the bakery isn't sold out this late on a Friday afternoon."

It wasn't. The odors in the European-style bakery were sinfully decadent. Blair had forgotten how enticing European recipes were compared with the spare basics of American cuisine, often high on sugar and low on taste. While the owner waited on another customer, he perused the array of rich pastries and pointed out a variety that Jim had never seen before.

"Hey! Look at these hamantaschen, Jim. Ever have any?"

"I can't even pronounce it. You mean those big triangular cookies with the fruit fillings?"

"Yeah, but you don't usually see them in the summer months. They're made around Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates how the Jews of ancient Shushan were saved from certain death at the hands of the King's evil henchman, Haman. These are the traditional cookies made and shared at that annual winter festival, shaped like the hats worn by the officers of the old Persian courts. The filling represents God's sweet presence, even inside a pocket of evil. Hamantaschen literally means 'Haman's pockets'."

Jim was often fascinated by Blair's grasp of the obscure, although he'd prefer to be drawn and quartered rather than admit it. "Well, God seems to come in apricot and prune in this bakery."

"Blasphemer," Blair choked out, hoping the owner wasn't listening in case he was a devout Jew. It was a Hungarian bakery and he wasn't sure if the owner was Jewish or not. The style of baking was similar among the various Eastern European cultures.

"What's that black filling stuff?"

"Oh, those are my favorite kind, called 'mohn'."

Jim had never heard of such a fruit but didn't bother to ask for more details. He was never particularly anxious to try new foods. "Well, I'll have the apricot. But buy a lot of those cream cheese rugalach and a chocolate nut roll. Those are really good and I'll even share with Mrs. Oster."

"Got it covered, man."

The only other customer in the bakery left, leaving them with a grey-bearded hulk of a man. His bulk reflected strength more than fat, despite his advanced age.

"And vut can I get for you?"

Blair smiled. It had been a long time since he'd heard that type of accent. "We'd like an assortment of the hamantaschen, please. Make it three of each type, apricot, prune and mohn."

As the baker gathered the pastries into a box, Blair gave the rest of his order and asked his usual question when buying anything destined for Jim's consumption. "Do you use any artificial ingredients in your goods?"

The elderly man's stooped posture immediately became ramrod straight. "Younk man! You inzult my goots? I vill kick your tuchas out uff mine ztore! Uff course everyzink is natural."

"Whoa, man. Nothing personal! My friend here has a lot of allergies and I can't take any chances with him."

Jim decided the old man didn't pose a threat but objected to his tone. "Just settle down, there, Sir. No insult intended." The proprietor went back to boxing the baked goods.

"Uhm, Chief? What's a tookas?"

"Tuchas, man. A Jewish butt. In this case, mine."

Chuckling, Jim turned back to the store owner. "We'll just take our order with us now and you'll leave my partner's tookas alone. I'm the only one allowed to kick it."

"Yeah? Tell that to Simon," Blair muttered.

The bad-tempered baker completed their transaction and saw them out of the store before closing the door and turning the sign over to read 'Closed'.

"Someone put in too long a day today." Blair got into the truck, glad to be out of range of yet another grumpy individual.

"Not unlike ourselves, Chief. Belt your tookas in securely and let's go home."

"Cute, man. You could at least pronounce it right ..."

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

They got everything upstairs in two trips and happily collapsed on the couch after putting the perishables into the refrigerator. Jim immediately reached for the pad and paper beside the phone, constitutionally unable to allow the blinking light on the answering machine to continue.

"Hi Sweetie, sorry I missed you. Just letting you know it's all set for the first. I'll just purify the house where I'll be staying and then call to see when and where we can get together. I'm so excited that we'll be in the same city for a whole week. Love to you and Jim. Bye!" BEEP

"Jim, Simon here. Guess you're not home yet, well it is a Friday night and a long drive home from Port Angeles. Just wanted to let you know that things went down really well up there after you left. Everyone is very happy about it which makes me very happy. Just ... well, make sure your report explains how you staked out the perp and got your information very carefully. A lot of the higher ups will be reading the damn thing and, just uhm, BLAIR! You're probably listening to this too. You know what to do. Don't let Jim come within arm's reach of the computer and you write the report, okay? I mean ..." BEEP

Blair hit the pause button, laughing. "Damn, Jim, we never got you a longer, er, attachment!"

He was promptly pushed off the couch but managed to gasp out "Lens envy!" before hitting the floor.

Trying not to encourage his tormentor by laughing, Jim pointedly ignored the rude sounds being emitted by the figure on the floor. He hit the play button on the machine again and Blair sat up abruptly upon hearing his mentor's voice.

"Blair? This is Eli Stoddard. I apologize for calling your home phone but I've managed to lose your cell number. These senior moments are all lengthening into just plain 'seniority', I guess. I am so sorry you were kept on tenterhooks for ten days, my boy, but the thesis defense was finally accepted with those entirely superfluous revisions you were asked to make. Congratulations, Doctor Sandburg. I couldn't be happier ..." BEEP. CLICK.

That's why he's been so hyper lately. When did he ... two weeks ago when Simon told me he was addressing an Academy class. He was defending his diss! Jim scooted down the length of the couch next to Blair's place on the floor. The younger man sat there, with his knees raised and his head hidden in his arms. Placing one hand on the nearest shoulder, Jim gently raised the chin to face him. Blair's eyes were joyously moist, his frame vibrating slightly.

"Chief!" Jim's voice broke and he cleared his throat, impatiently pushing away a vision of his best friend, lying motionless, in a fountain. "You did it." He slid his large frame to the floor beside his partner and put his arms around him. Blair squeaked at the overly enthusiastic clasp to the broad chest. That led to laughter, first tentative, then victorious until the loft rang with the triumphant sounds.

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

"Please tell me why I shouldn't wring your vastly over-educated neck, for not telling me you'd defended your diss two weeks back?" Jim refilled Blair's coffee cup. Too hyped-up for cooking, they'd sent out for Thai and grinned foolishly at one another throughout the meal. Conversation had been a series of disjointed and funny recollections about Blair's school days and fitting his work around Jim's needs in the field. But the meal had ended and Jim needed to discuss his partner's secrecy ... and future plans.

"Because it's my weekend to clean the bathroom? You wouldn't strangle the Tidy-Bowl guy, would you?" Blair was happily exhausted with the day's events but tried to settle down and address Jim's undoubtedly mixed emotions at this point. Shamanic sense or long experience? He still couldn't tell the difference among his various ways of 'knowing'. Either way, there were bound to be some insecurities right now, although his friend had been undeniably overjoyed at this milestone.

"It's simple, man. If you'd known, you would have insisted upon coming with me to school. Then, you would've sat in the hall, menacing every committee member who entered the room to hear my defense." Blair looked him straight in the eye, daring him to deny it.

Jim didn't even try. "Granted. But afterwards?"

"Well, you would've been as anxious as I was and called Edward's office every day, demanding to know why I hadn't been informed of the decision yet. After a few days of that, you'd have gone over there and punched someone out."

"That's ridiculous!"

"Yep. So I didn't give you a chance to do it."

"That's not what I meant, Darwin."

"It's precisely what I meant, Conan."

Jim inclined his head in defeat. "Okay, so you were nervous enough without my getting impatient with the waiting game. I think it stinks that they made you wait and I might have shortened the waiting time if you'd told me!"

Jim was subjected to a steady stare until he realized he'd just confirmed all expectations. Blushing, he tried to change the subject. "Let's go bring Mrs. O her groceries and some cake. She'll enjoy your news and uhm, the cake..." Jim rose and started gathering items to bring next door.

Shaking his head, Blair helped him by removing the dairy items from the fridge. They moved into the hallway and knocked on their neighbor's door. After a lengthy interval it opened, revealing the grey hair and bright smile of their neighbor. There were lines of pain around her eyes but this didn't diminish the light in the bright ovals.

"Come in, boys. It was so nice of you to shop for me. I'm afraid this hasn't been one of my better weeks." She was using a cane and one ankle was heavily bandaged.

"Mrs. O! You hurt your foot? I thought your arthritis was acting up." Blair offered some support beneath her elbow as they moved slowly towards the kitchen table. The elderly woman sat down and allowed the two men to put away the groceries, occasionally offering directions as to the preferred location for an item. Blair looked at her a bit more sharply, coming to a new conclusion. Once again, he wasn't certain if it was familiarity or a sharpening awareness of human nature coming to his conscious mind. "You lied to your son so he wouldn't know you'd hurt yourself."

Jim looked up, surprised at the conclusion. Then he nodded his agreement at the likelihood of that scenario.

"Well, I took a page from your book, young man, and obfuscated." She smiled at Jim's bark of laughter. "The truth is I missed that last step down from the bedroom stairs and twisted my ankle. No need to tell Gabe since it will heal soon enough. I don't want him to start urging me to move in with his family just yet. I have a couple more years of independence left in me and they really do need the rent from that nice young lady who is currently occupying their new 'in-law' addition to their house. They'd never take money from me." She smiled. "I'll be glad enough to do that later on, just not now."

Jim nodded, understanding her need for independence. Blair appeared to be maintaining a respectful, if somewhat disapproving, silence in this matter.

"Those stairs are a problem for you now, aren't they?" Ever-practical, Jim began pondering possible solutions.

"Well, perhaps they aren't the best arrangement for me. But I can't see looking around in some strange neighborhood for a new place. Might as well move in with Gabe as do that."

Blair perked up. "The Barkers in 312 are moving soon. Gloria Barker is pregnant so they bought a house. I don't think their one bedroom unit, all on one level, has been rented yet!"

"Well, I own this apartment. Still, I could sublet it and rent their place for the present, evening out the costs. And Gloria keeps such a spotless home. I wouldn't have to do much with it before taking occupancy. I'll call her in the morning to see what can be arranged." Mrs. Oster beamed, her pleasure in such a simple solution very apparent to her caring neighbors.

The two men exchanged glances of intense satisfaction. Jim gestured to a bakery box they'd brought along with the groceries. "I'd say this calls for a celebration. Blair, make some tea and I'll put out some of these terrific cookies ..."

"Rugalach and hamantaschen."

"...that we purchased at considerable risk to Blair's tookas." Jim smirked at his partner.

"Blair's what?" Mrs. Oster was pleased to see the pastries but not surprised that some odd story might accompany the snack. She knew her neighbors well.

"Oy gevald!" Blair sighed in annoyance.

Jim raised an eyebrow. "I understand the 'Oy' of course but what's an 'Oy gevald'?

"Consider it an 'Oy', squared."

They explained about their little sojourn in the bakery and joked about the vivid nature of various Yiddish expressions that Blair recalled from his days with his New York relatives. Jim relished the tartness of his apricot hamantaschen and Mrs. Oster had half of the prune, protesting the large size of the cookies. Blair savored his favorite kind while they talked companionably about their day. Their neighbor's pleasure in Blair's achievement was most gratifying. Finally, a yawning Jim was shooed back to his apartment on the grounds that he'd driven a lot of miles that day. Blair remained. "I'll just tidy up here and then follow suit."

Jim said his 'goodnights' and left. Mrs. Oster looked on fondly as Blair puttered around her kitchen until he placed the last cup in the drying rack. "By the way, what kind of fruit was in your cookie, Blair?"

"That wasn't fruit. Mohn is a paste made from poppy seeds. Really good stuff."

Somewhat distracted, he looked about him as a new thought dawned. "Mrs. O? Let me know what Gloria has to say about her apartment. I may have a tenant for you if your move goes as planned."

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

Sunday, 5:40 P.M.; the Loft:

"So, when are our dinner guests arriving?" Blair watched Jim put the finishing touches on the salad fixings.

"I told them six o'clock." Jim watched Blair check the temperature of the roasting chicken to see if it was done. "Do we really need to know if that bird has a fever before we eat it? "

"Repeat after me: the internal temperature of a chicken must be at 180 degrees or it's not done, no matter how the outside looks." Blair had started taking this precaution since they were usually too preoccupied to remember to take a bird out of the freezer in time for it to fully defrost before cooking. Jim's last effort had been bright pink inside and too well done outside to stand for more cooking. Blair had called out for pizza, to the older man's disgust. But he'd eaten the pizza all the same.

Jim sniffed appreciatively at the crisp skin, a deep red from being coated with a paste of paprika and water mixed with other, equally mild, spices. "Looking good, Chief." He patted Blair's arm, as he maneuvered around him to transfer the salad from the colander to a serving bowl.

Blair grinned, wondering how long it was possible for a person to feel this happy. He'd been treated like a king all weekend, well except for the part where he'd had to clean the bathroom as per their schedule of chores. Jim had been on the phone continuously, telling everyone they knew about his degree. Bragging, like a big brother. And Simon, roaring his congratulations through the phone, nearly throwing Jim into convulsions. Blair had grabbed the receiver that his sentinel had dropped in his pain and invited Simon to dinner, if only to get him off the phone.

Eli had already been invited to give them the gory details of the dissertation committee's deliberations. He hoped Eli wouldn't feel constrained about discussing matters in front of Simon.

Jim walked over to the door, opening it with a sly grin. "Hello, Simon."

The tall man grunted his usual dissatisfaction at being greeted even before his 'arrival' and shoved a bottle of wine into Jim's hands. He then hunted Blair down in the kitchen and sent him staggering with a fond slap to his back. "Congratulations, Blair!"

Jim winced. "Simon, don't beat the poor man to death. He wants to live to enjoy that degree."

"Sorry, Blair. Didn't mean to ..."

Blair waved him off. "Don't worry about it, Simon. You just rearranged a few vertebrae that were a bit out of alignment anyway. Saved me a bunch on chiropractic bills." The cheeky reply elicited smiles between the older men. Blair managed to catch his roommate in mid-turn and wave an admonishing finger. "Ah, ah, ah! Jim, let Eli ring the bell like a civilized person. He's been convinced you're a sentinel since the press conference but stopped just short of requesting official confirmation. Let's not offer it to him on a silver platter, okay?"

Ellison glared at his friend but obediently awaited the signal while Simon laughed at him. Finally opening the door, his frown receded in his pleasure at receiving Blair's revered mentor. This man had taken a fourteen-year-old genius under his wing. And all the aggravation that must have come with it, considering how long it took me to 'housebreak' the slightly matured version.

"Dr. Stoddard, it's great to see you again."

No less distinguished in appearance for the scholarly stoop of shoulders, the Professor allowed himself to be ushered into the living room. "Eli, please. Otherwise, we'll be reciting titles all night. There's another 'doctor' present," he said, directing a brilliant smile towards his approaching student, "and you were a Captain in the armed forces, correct?"

"I go by 'Detective' now, but here's a real live Captain. You may remember our boss, Simon Banks, from Blair's birthday party."

The two guests shook heartily, feeling a common bond in their fondness for their shared protégé. Blair's extended hand was ignored as he was firmly embraced by the elderly man.

Clearing his throat, Blair huskily announced dinner. "By some miracle, everything is ready on time so why let it get cold? Please take your seats, gentlemen. Jim, can you open the wine? But I think you'd rather have a beer with your meal." Blair had looked at the wine and saw it was the usual type containing sulfites. His suggestion diplomatically signaled his sentinel to beg off on this bottle.

"No wine, Jim?" Simon raised his eyebrows.

"No, I'm not a big fan." Jim preferred not to elaborate and Simon shrugged his acceptance.

They sat down to engage in what Blair termed to be the age-old custom of friends 'breaking bread' together. "If you wax poetic about the anthropological significance of each dish on this table, I'll make you eat on the balcony!" Jim shook his head as Blair offered him the vegetable plate, instead reaching for the mashed potato casserole. Blair hesitated, and wisely refrained, from placing a serving on Jim's plate anyway as he might have done if they'd been alone.

Simon caught the byplay. "You two could make a fortune on stage doing the 'Odd Couple' if Neil Simon ever decides to revive his play." He looked at Eli. "Was it you who taught Blair to play mother hen? He's pretty good at it in the Bull ... at the station, and I'm pretty sure he didn't learn that at his mother's knee."

"Let's just say that Blair required some small degree of supervision when I met him."

"He still does, but I thank you for your early efforts," Jim contributed around a mouthful of potato.

"He is sitting right here, guys. May I suggest you not bite the hand that is engaged in feeding you all?" Blair raised an eyebrow, warningly.

"And an excellent chicken it is." Eli gazed fondly upon his former student, and decided to broach the subject everyone was waiting for him to raise. "I remember the rubber chicken dinner we consumed at our committee meeting earlier this month, to review a number of dissertation defenses. There were four of them."

Simon winced slightly and hastened to apologize to Jim. "I'm sorry I lied to you about Blair's plans that day but I was sworn to secrecy." Simon had regretted the necessity but also sympathized with Blair's reasoning on the matter. The Bullpen had certainly not needed a 'jumpy' Jim to deal with, in addition to a nervous rookie detective.

"Blair explained it to me and I understood his motives for the deception." Jim smiled in a sinister fashion at his boss. "I'll think of some way for you to make it up to me."

"I never doubted it for a moment," Simon replied, sourly. He glanced at Blair, whose eyes shone with amusement. "And I'll be sure to pass on the cost."

Stoddard laughed, but wasn't sure how much information to impart with Simon present. His hesitancy was recognized and Blair hastened to assure him that everything could be shared freely. An exchange of glances with Simon confirmed that the Captain was not expecting a fairytale ending to this story.

"Blair, the revisions you were asked to provide were not agreed upon by all hands. They were a condition imposed by Chancellor Edwards, if your degree was to be awarded at all, without legal wrangling. She wanted to make sure you missed the graduation ceremonies on the grounds that the degree hadn't been earned yet and was not guaranteed."

Blair ignored the stifled oaths of outrage by his roommate and boss. "I hadn't planned on going to graduation anyway, just in case there were reporters with long memories covering the event." Blair appeared unconcerned, despite the pain evoked by the reminder of Edward's hatred of him. "I've never attended graduation ceremonies anyway."

"What? You've spent more than two decades in school and never ...?"

"No, Simon. I was always on the way somewhere before the end of each term. I often took my exams early so I could move on with Naomi or go on some field trip."

Jim clenched his fists and tried not to resent the woman who'd robbed Blair of his final moment of academic glory. "You should have been offered the choice."

"Got what I wanted, man. Us, Naomi coming in and ... well, that's everything." There was no mistaking the sincerity of his expression and tone. "This is really too important a moment for me to share publicly."

It was a far more relaxed group that tucked into the dessert course.

Eli continued his tale. "On a much better note, a FedEx will arrive on Monday for you containing a proposed settlement on the part of the University for the fuss they kicked up over a paper that was never actually submitted to them. Uhm, I may have been a tad uninformative about your reluctance to sue them, Blair." Eli's look of innocence rivaled Blair's habitual mien, leading Simon to wonder just how much his rookie had really learned from his mentor outside of the textbooks.

"What did you tell them, Eli? Enquiring minds want to know," Jim added suspiciously.

"Just that Blair hadn't made any decisions despite several interesting offers of aid from some prominent attorneys." He coughed delicately. "I may have dropped a few names here and there."

Ellison beamed. "Names of lawyers? I'm impressed, Professor."

"Academia is not a game for the innocent, I'm afraid. One must often be ruthless in pursuit of grants."

"Yeah, give me a serial killer any day over the suits from Exxon's ad agency, pretending to be supporters of education and the environment." Blair shuddered at the thought of doing that every year. "Not my cup of tea, thanks."

"Yes, well, if anyone asks, the names Johnny Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, Anita Hill and Ken Starr might have come up in conversation."

"I'd never take a call from Ken Starr!" Blair's tone of outrage had the others laughing uproariously. "Well, I wouldn't," he subsided, blushing slightly.

"That was the name that most impressed them." Eli focused upon stirring his coffee rather than meeting Blair's eyes. "A rather conservative group, on the whole."

"That figures."

"Regardless, that got them thinking about how they could settle this without actually writing a check to you and we hit upon the idea of paying off all your student loans."

Blair brightened considerably at that news. "Wow, that would be fantastic!"

"Just a second, Junior. I know what those add up to and it isn't bad but you could do better."

Eli sighed and answered Jim's point when Blair remained silent. "Only by going to court and you know your friend here is a very stubborn young man."

Blair ignored the round of agreements that provoked. "I'm not above being a bit mercenary when the occasion calls for it. I didn't care about graduation but they don't know that." Blair waggled his eyebrows. "I think that calls for a bit of pain on their part while I ponder their offer."

"I like the sound of that, partner." Jim looked at Blair questioningly.

"I've forked over a heavy chunk of change each month since joining the force to pay off more principal than was required. Figured my rent was low for the present," casting a quick grin in Jim's direction, "so I'd reduce future interest payments that way. I think I want all of that back, since they should have done this last year."

Eli nodded approvingly. "Return their offer with a conditional acceptance, if they reimburse you for the payments made to date. That will force them to write a check to you after all, keep you out of a public court battle, and leave you a tidy little sum to use as you please."

The team appeared content with this plan and enjoyed their desserts while Blair suffered the retelling of his defeat at the hands of a heavily-accented baker. He consoled himself by downing an entire mohn hamantaschen during the tale.

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

Monday, 7:00 A.M.; the Loft:

Jim poured the coffee as he watched Blair engaged in his usual morning exercise in somnambulism. Feeling his way into the bathroom, eyes barely open, his partner made his way to the shower. Having been awake until all hours and imbibing a bit more alcohol than usual, he figured Blair wouldn't be up to a full breakfast this morning. Placing the remaining mohn hamantaschen on a plate, Jim helped himself to a couple of the rugalach and began planning his day.

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

Arriving at the station, Jim motioned his partner to silence as the elevator approached the seventh floor. Automatically scanning the Bullpen, sounds of unusual activity placed the Sentinel on full alert. "Something's wrong, Chief. Simon's bellowing something ... about drugs, his teams and last week's busts."

Blair placed a hand on his shoulder to aid his concentration purely on sound since his other senses wouldn't prove useful while they were on the elevator. That raised the risk of a zone.

"Simon wouldn't bellow at bad guys, he's too smart for that. Who's he actually yelling at?"

"Internal affairs. Something about missing drugs from an evidence locker, up at Port Angeles."

"Shit, we're gonna be the focus here."

"Well, we've got nothing to hide so let's let the assholes do their thing and then get to work."

"Don't let them hear you call them that."

"I don't recall there being any sentinels among their ranks so I think we're safe for the present."

Ellison listened further. "Uhm, Chief? I wouldn't make your usual stop at the john just yet."

"Why not? I downed two cups of coffee this morning, man. And when did you become bathroom monitor? Do I need a special pass now?"

"This morning you will. Been awhile since I saw this happen but you're in for a special treat today, if my memory serves for these particular circumstances."

They exited the elevator. "Nobody likes a cryptic cop. Spill, man."

"Funny you should suggest that. Looks like we're all about to offer up urine samples to IA." Jim's tone was resigned.

"I had that done when I signed up as an observer and again when I entered the Academy. Do these people have some kind of fetish going?" Arriving at their desks, they were divesting themselves of jackets when the anticipated bellow was heard.

"Ellison and Sandburg! My office, now!"

The partners looked at each other and simultaneously uttered, "Oy gevald!" As they walked towards Banks' office, Blair laughed at Jim's use of the expression. "Careful there, people might think I'm trying to convert you or something. You didn't learn that expression from the crew at the Cascade Country Club."

"That's a pretty safe assumption." Jim knocked on the glass door and they were bidden to enter by their seriously annoyed Captain.

"I'll handle this, Captain Banks." A head of red hair turned on long legs, revealing the familiar features of Sheila Irwin. "Detectives, I'll make this short and sweet. Internal Affairs is invoking its privilege to insist upon a urine sample from each of you. This demand is permitted by article 3, section 13, of the procedures manual and is approved by the union, in case you wish to consult them. Have either of you urinated since entering the building this morning?"

Ellison suddenly found it easy to curb the automatic feelings of attraction that had drawn him to the IA cop in their previous contacts. He understood the need for these tests but felt they'd earned a more respectful approach than this curt demand. His drawled response dripped sarcasm. "Well, I was about to lift my leg in the elevator but Sandburg here, objected. He felt our stopping at several hydrants along the way should have been sufficient."

"Jim, you're not helping matters here. She's got the right to ask for this." Simon knew his next statement was going to shock the hell out of his subordinates. "I have also been informed that you are to empty your pockets here and then be escorted to the men's room. I will then stand outside of the cubicle, uhm, listening, while you fill these containers. Ms. Irwin will remain outside the bathroom with whoever goes second." His voice was laced with disgust.

Blair appeared ready to make known his own opinions when Simon decided to head him off.

"Never mind, Sandburg. I don't want to hear it. That truck driver you followed to Port Angeles last week informed us he'd been carrying a lot more product than was entered into the evidence log and placed in lock-up. I know damn well neither of you uses or would ever do anything like this, but this measure is a routine step that puts it on the record."

Blair remained silent, seeing that Simon was equally aggravated by Irwin's attitude. Jim had verbally flipped IA the bird already, so there was no need to further irritate their Captain.

Irwin regarded Blair's expression suspiciously. "Is there any particular reason for you to object to this request, Detective Sandburg?"

"He hasn't refused anything," Jim snapped, the outburst serving to deflect attention from his partner. This is one of those things Sandburg most loathes about being a cop. Just another reminder of his career path detour. "Give us some respect here. You waltz in here and demand our bodily fluids so we can prove to you we aren't some junkies stealing from a department we've served honorably for years. You even order our Captain to make sure Sandburg and I aren't prepared with samples from someone else's bladder." His voice returned to a softer volume, a sure sign of warning to those who knew him. "Or maybe you'd enjoy it more if we smiled, whipped 'em out and produced our samples for you right here and now."

"Enough, Ellison!" Simon tried to forestall the IA officer's response to the insults but Sheila was no simpering novice at this game. Another glance told him that even Blair was surprised at Jim's vehemence.

They were all surprised when Irwin responded calmly. "Let it be, Captain. This part of the meet and greet was to gauge the moods of the officers involved. I'd say that part's been accomplished." She paused, solely for the purpose of getting back her own after Ellison's tirade. Then she grinned. "I know righteous indignation when I see it. While these two boy scouts might be up to any number of things, smack isn't one of them. I apologize for being maximally offensive, but the circumstances are rather unusual."

Blair shook his head, his thoughts, for once, hidden.

Simon's voice was conciliatory, now that he knew IA didn't really think his men were guilty of anything. "Okay, let's play this out like professionals, okay?" He turned on Irwin. "Gimme those cups, Irwin, and let's move along to the men's room. And the seals better be unbroken or we don't do this at all." He inspected the receptacles carefully before leading the way out of his office.

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

Blair sat, tight-lipped, through the remainder of the day, punching out reports efficiently. He responded politely to Jim's overtures but offered none of the usual color commentary that made work so much like watching a sporting event for the jaded detective. By five o'clock, Jim was exhausted from Blair's efforts to remain calm.

"That's it. We're going out to dinner. Chinese?"

"Sure, man. Whatever."

"No, not whatever. Dinner. You remember that little ritual that combines good food with good conversation?"

"I make you no promises on the conversational front. You know, I'm prepared to accept drug testing under certain circumstances but the Oscar performance that accompanied it really turned me off the whole purpose of the proceedings. And, speaking of performances, thanks for making the protests for both of us."

"It really is just protocol, plus Irwin's usual enthusiasm for her job. We'll get the tests back and then they'll let us see the driver so we can get the real story. Most likely some cop in Port Angeles recorded things wrong. Or maybe someone's actually dirty, but this had to happen like this. We have a lot of trust invested in us and the penalties for all cops whenever there's a violation of that trust. So the burden is continuously on us to prove the trust is justified. Doesn't have to be fair; it's the job."

"Yeah. I get it."

"No, not yet. But wait until some cop you've been close to comes up short like that and then you will, big time."

"So I find this repugnant just because I'm new at this? I've seen dirty cops before with you."

"Yeah, but they were theories to you and even some justification for your long-held views about cops. Not so easy from this side of the badge. You know, proving how you're not really a 'pig'."

Blair relapsed into silence, thinking about that one. Then he grinned. "Okay, I'll try to look at it that way. I also did some research on the court's positions about these things. Those of us working in 'safety sensitive' positions are supposed to have, get this, a 'diminished expectation of privacy'. Guess we're lucky that Sheila didn't join us in the can herself. Now, I'm still on a sugar high from the hamantaschen, so we're gonna need extra fortune cookies."

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

Tuesday, 8:40 A.M.; the Bullpen:

"Sandburg, my office!"

"Okay, I know it's too early for me to have done anything to piss him off yet."

"I'll keep the light on for you."

"Thanks, Jim. You ever run a motel?"

"Move your tookas, Chief."

"No more rugalach for you, man until you learn the Hebrew pronunciation for the 'ch' sound."

Blair disappeared into the inner sanctum while Jim began to prepare his testimony for an upcoming court case. His concentration was broken when Blair returned and began to gather his gun and jacket.

"We going someplace?"

"Nope, but I am. It seems Dippy Dobbs down in robbery needs someone who speaks Spanish to help interview a victim. His translator is out sick."

"Must have killed him to ask for you." Jim grinned at the thought but he sobered at the lousy treatment Blair always received in that department. "You want company?"

"Nah, I'll be fine. Translating for Dobbs is fun. The people I interview usually teach me some creative new ways to describe the dipstick. They love how he yells at them in English, as if decibel levels make up for lack of shared vocabulary."

"Have fun then. I'll be busy for the rest of the morning on this crap."

Blair smiled, knowing Jim had so little patience for the wrap-up of his cases. "Later, man."

An hour later, Jim's concentration was disturbed by the smell of Sheila Irwin's brand of soap. He watched her duck into Simon's office, only to hear his name bellowed shortly thereafter. Good, we can wrap this up.

The solemn faces that greeted him appeared to contradict that hope. "What gives, Captain?"

"I'll let Irwin tell you." Simon tossed a paper across his desk at the senior detective.

Jim caught it as it glided along the laminated top of the standard issue desk. He turned it right side up and a look of shock came over his face. "I must not be reading this right. Sheila, you understand this medical mumbo-jumbo?"

"You're reading it right, Ellison. Your partner's urine was positive for opium products."

"Not possible. It has to be a lab error. This is the guy who refuses morphine after getting shot. Why would he take it for fun?"

Sheila sighed in combined frustration and irritation. "Look, I'm not going to come down on either side of this situation right now. I know Sandburg and how much you all think of him. But you have to understand this has to be taken seriously. I've seen former altar boys turn into druggies and killers. So, sit down Detective, because we have a few things to ask you before Sandburg comes back from his current task."

"There's no reason to talk about him behind his back. Let's wait for him to get up here."

Simon interceded to avoid Irwin's imminent loss of patience. "It might be better for the kid if we do talk first, Jim. Blair wasn't thrilled about the last sample he had to submit. Now he's going to have to do it again, under suspicion because of the positive lab test. We both know there has to be a good explanation for this, so let's see if we can make this easier on him, instead of harder."

Reluctantly, Jim sat down. "He doesn't use."

Sheila corrected him. "This paper says he does unless you can tell me something that would account for it. After the samples were taken, you both filled out statements of medication usage and answered some questions about your eating habits. Sandburg wrote about some crackers he'd eaten that could potentially screw up a marijuana screen, but we weren't doing that test."

"What are you talking about? I was with him all weekend from the trip to Port Angeles until we showed up here on Monday morning. He didn't eat anything weirder than some fruit-filled cookies."

Sheila looked disgusted. "It was some combination of organic grains that included hemp and flax seeds."

Simon laughed, returning the meeting to some semblance of reality. "Right, the perfect portrait of a junkie or dealer. Organic crackers and crack to go, please."

The steel rod that was Ellison's spine relaxed slightly. "Oh, yeah. He had those for lunch on Sunday, with tuna salad. He spent the day cooking for some dinner guests, including the Captain, here. We were celebrating the completion of his PhD. You can call him Doctor Sandburg or Detective now."

"I don't care if he's the mayor. I want to know why he tested positive. Did he eat any bagels or seeded breads?"

"No."

"Cough or cold medicines, then? Codeine and dextromethorphan can mimic the opium derivatives."

"No, he's not sick as far as I know and hasn't been coughing."

"What about antidepressants, like Elavil?"

"The kid's not depressed, for chrissake! He just got his doctorate!" Jim exclaimed, exasperation propelling him from his chair to pace around the room. "And Sandburg would likely be cheerful on his way to the guillotine, which pretty much sounds like his next destination!"

Simon tried again to diffuse the situation. "Jim, we can end your participation right here and now if you don't calm down. Irwin is trying to find an explanation here. Let's work with her, okay?"

Jim visibly gathered his patience and sat back down. "Sandburg isn't on any medications that I know of, although he's been known to do strange things with herbs and health foods. So ask him, but do it nicely. He deserves the benefit of the doubt."

A knock on the door led all of the office's occupants to stiffen in anticipation of Blair's distress. "Come in." Simon popped an unlit cigar in his mouth for comfort.

"Captain, you may be getting a call from Captain Dobbs down in robbery. He isn't going to like the transcript of the interview I did with ... oh, hi, Jim. Ms. Irwin. Am I interrupting anything?"

With a wary glance at Ellison, Sheila decided to take the gentle approach.

"Have a seat, Sandburg. We have a problem to resolve and need you to calmly help us without getting defensive, okay? We need to go over any medications you may have taken, any herbals or other health aids, because your urine test came back positive for morphine-type substances."

Blair sank into a chair hastily produced for him by his partner. "Huh? You're yanking my chain, right?"

Irwin handed him the paper.

He scanned it. "Can't be. Did these lab results get switched with another sample or something?" Blair's expression was wavering between confusion and outrage. "What the hell does this mean?"

"It means we have to repeat your urine test now, and try to figure out why your first test came up positive. Until we do, you're on administrative leave."

Simon cleared his throat, loudly. "That isn't necessary, Irwin. Let's wait for the next set of test results ..."

"That's procedure, Captain. And if you aren't objective here, I'll call someone from IA to observe the next sample. This time, he has to be watched, uhm, filling the vial."

Silence greeted that announcement. Blair's eyes stung with feelings of humiliation, futility and helplessness. Just how much more do I have to take to stay at Jim's side?

Jim watched that silent struggle and found himself suddenly at peace with the choices before them. "Just say the word, Chief, and we both put our badges and guns on that desk and walk away. You don't have to do this and I don't have to be party to it, myself. Up to you."

Jim's quick hand gesture caused Simon to abort his move to rise from his chair. Shocked into obedience, their captain waited for his decision.

Blair stared, unbelieving for a moment that Jim was deferring to him in this critical matter. Elated by the confidence placed in him, yet intensely aware of the responsibility it conferred upon him, Blair decided to accept the burden. As a team, they couldn't operate under anything less than their own, unique basic requirements for the trust of their superiors and the public they served.

"Listen to me, very carefully, Sheila. I know you have no choice here, so don't take anything I say as being personally directed to you. I do have choices and they aren't based on your rules, union agreements or anything except my wish to do my job. But not at any and all costs."

Sheila's attention was fully upon him, so Blair continued. "My choice is to take the test again. Simon can search me, to make sure I'm not carrying any handy little bottles of urine on my person. He can stand in the bathroom like last time, but any observations will be restricted to his ears alone. I'll offer proofs of my fitness for duty, but on my terms. Then you get to decide if they're good enough for the PD. That's your problem, not mine."

Blair turned to Simon. "I'm going to hire a toxicologist to help figure this out, so I want two vials to fill." He smiled, grimly. "Luckily, I drank a lot of coffee downstairs with the witness I was interviewing. You get one sample and I get one to bring to my own expert. Even if it never counts legally, I'll have a record of the truth. That's all I need." Simon nodded his endorsement of the plan. Irwin, sagely, remained silent.

"Jim? Call Connelly and see who he recommends in lab people and toxicologists." Blair remembered some of the stories Jim's lawyer had regaled them with during several raucous nights out on the town. "And when we get the answers, I'll expect to see a letter of exoneration on my desk within the day. I also expect the investigation into the charges of that drug dealer to proceed immediately, regardless of the test results. These are separate issues since I could be a drug addict and he could still be a liar, implicating officials just for the hell of it. Who knows how many Port Angeles cops are being harassed with these accusations. I don't mind being held to a high standard but I'll be damned if some dealer gets more rights than we do in these matters."

"I'm on it, Chief." Eminently satisfied with the decisions made, Jim rose to call his, no, their, lawyer. He turned to Irwin. "Until this problem is resolved, I'm either investigating it or on leave with Sandburg. I can't be told I'm free of suspicion but still not allowed to investigate these criminal charges. So make a decision and do it now."

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

Tuesday, 5:20 P.M.; Jim's truck:

Blair's activity level was always a sure-fire way to gauge his level of excitement or anxiety. Both were riding high just now and Jim was not sure he could survive the results.

The kid had already given him chapter and verse about how the courts view drug testing. Not much comfort to be found there.

Jim was concentrating hard upon the road, trying to ignore the foot tapping, finger drumming, torso squirming and sub-vocalizing body next to him in the front seat of his truck. It was a half-hour drive to the suburb where his attorney resided. Connelly had decided they'd all be more comfortable discussing this over dinner in the privacy of his home. He'd also confided that by having the toxicologist over for dinner, they'd all be spared one hell of a consulting fee, even if they'd end up owing him a favor.

"Connelly says this toxicologist works with his plaintiffs in toxic tort cases and is one of the best. Says he can figure this out with us, so we can stop banging our heads against the wall."

Blair nodded in agreement.

"My hearing isn't good enough to hear the marbles roll, Chief, so if you're agreeing or disagreeing, use some words here."

'Yeah."

"They sure learn ya a lot of words in them thar doc-tor-ate pro-grams now, don't they?"

Blair gave a bark of bittersweet laughter and his restless body stilled, somewhat. "I should never have rented 'Deliverance' for you, although you did do a fairly decent impression of that Appalachian half-wit today! Do you know the chance you took back there? I came this close to chucking everything. Like, I really need to have Simon watch me stick my dick in a cup to prove I'm a clean cop?"

"What I could do with that lead-in ..."

"Work with me here, Jim."

"You're gonna make me spell it out, aren't you." The tone was light, but not particularly amused. "Blair, I didn't take any chances back there. I'm not about to sacrifice your dignity and my self-respect to guard a tribe that doesn't trust us. There are other ways we can do what you say we're meant to do. And ..."

"And?"

"I could never stand by and watch you to do anything I would refuse to do."

"You know, I was going to walk until you told me my decision was for both of us. Then, suddenly, it's like I felt and knew the limits for us were the same. It's making me nuts, man, this kind of knowing that just comes out of the blue. It's both information and emotion, tied up together so that..." Blair choked briefly on his overly prolonged exhalation.

"Breathe, Chief. Just take a moment and breathe while I let you in on something I've been waiting to tell you about. There's a lot I don't remember about Peru, but when you started getting your flashes of 'whatever', some things came back to me. My Quechua was rough in those early days but Incacha was trying to explain to me how he knew what he knew. But he couldn't, you know? He kept using the words 'feel' and 'understand' together like they should be combined in a way that language doesn't allow you to do with a single word. That sounds like your kind of knowing."

"Then it's okay that I don't know how the hell I arrive at my conclusions all the time?"

"I think Incacha would say 'yes' to that." Jim chuckled, the sound reassuring to his overwrought partner. "He told me all that when I was bitching about my senses to him early on. I think, just maybe, he wasn't always happy with his own guesswork."

"It's just that I thought I was missing some major talent for this part of the gig."

"Well, you may have missed the ceremony for your anthro PhD, but I personally saw you qualify for your witch-doctorate in our last case. You dreamed about the motive behind the killing of that diamond setter and sensed what our only witness, that autistic kid, was experiencing. Let's just say I'm willing to defer to that, now and again."

A deliberate silence reigned for the remainder of the trip, each of them deep in his own thoughts.

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

"Come in, guys. Welcome to my humble abode." Connelly smirked, knowing the pat phrase was an oxymoron in the case of his custom designed, four-bedroom home, on no less than ten wooded acres.

"Jesus, Sean! I didn't realize the wages of sin paid so well." Jim marveled at the tasteful architecture and plain, Shaker-style décor. He'd never seen his friend's home.

Sandburg was a bit dazed at the earthy luxury. "Incredible, man. Naomi would say this was a pretty pure design."

Sean laughed, having met Naomi on one occasion at the loft. "She's welcome to check it out personally, Blair. And for as long as she likes."

"Just see if I ever let you get within a mile of her again. On the other hand," Blair looked around the huge living room again, admiringly, "if you'd consider adopting her fatherless son, I might be persuaded to let her marry you."

"Oh? She's got another boy around someplace?"

"You shyster, you. Thanks for helping us out here, man. I've been pretty freaked about all this stuff."

"Understandably. Dr. Handleman is on the phone in my study but he'll be out shortly. He said we should start dinner without him, if necessary. Says he's got some lab results to explain to some clueless attorney, unlike yours truly, his favorite client." Sean preened comically, only to be interrupted by the entrance of a thin, balding man with thick glasses.

"No, my favorite clients pay me exorbitant fees instead of just offering me a plate of spaghetti. Hello, I'm Sid Handleman, the man who'll be talking urine with you over pate. Not elegant, but hopefully useful." He grinned and extended a hand for them to shake. "I washed it, honest!"

His grin was infectious, Jim noted. If one can be forgiven for using that term to describe a doctor. He shook the proffered hand, heartily. "Thanks for helping us out."

Blair grasped the hand next. "That goes double for me, Dr. Handleman. I really appreciate this."

"Call me Sid. Let's enjoy Sean's excellent table and then we'll tackle this problem. These things are rarely that hard to figure out."

Connelly showed them into the dining room where an obviously handcrafted pine masterpiece of a dining table took center-stage. Benches served instead of chairs down the longer sides of the rectangle, eliminating any sense of formality. Country-style cushions softened the hard seats and matched the curtains. Blair looked up, questioningly.

Sean winked. "Yeah. She decorated it, but I kept it. Pays to have a good lawyer."

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

They got down to business over coffee and an excellent peach pie made by Sean's personal chef and served by an aging housekeeper. Each had copies of the sheets detailing everything the two detectives had done since heading out to Port Angeles. Blair was happy to be spared the story of the bakery visit this time, although the celebratory dinner was described in detail, which was no less embarrassing. Jim had made a separate list of everything the pair had eaten that weekend, given the fact they'd been together the entire time. The PD lab had cleared it of anything related to opium.

Sid noted that there probably wasn't a lab error involved, given the levels appearing in the initial test. "Usually, initial screens aren't that sensitive although, in your case, they had a specific problem in mind instead of the usual job application scenario. So let's say the first test was run using an immunoassay of some type. This latest one would involve the big guns; gas chromatography with mass spectrometry." Sid saw the blank looks directed at him and waved it off. "No matter. Look, I've read this list three times but can't see anything problematic here. So, let's look at all the commercially produced foods you ate and consider the possibility of contamination, either accidental or purposeful."

Jim took back the list. "There isn't much that we didn't make ourselves over this weekend, since we were entertaining. Other than take-out from the local Thai place on Friday night, we made everything else here except the baked goods."

"Yes, those would be the bakery cookies you listed. Some plain, some fruit-filled, and a chocolate nut roll. Hey, I haven't seen a chocolate nut roll since I lived on the Lower East side, while going to NYU medical school." Sid grinned at the memory. "Love to know where you got it from."

Blair sighed. The story was sure to be repeated now. "We got it at a Hungarian bakery along with the rugalach and hamantaschen."

"And a real friendly-type baker," Jim began.

"Hamantaschen?" Sid cut in. "What kind, Blair? This is very important."

"Don't see why. The lab guys at the PD saw Jim's list and said there wasn't anything on it that was suspicious."

"Then they're idiots, but the list only mentions fruit-filled cookies, not hamantaschen."

"That's because Jim can't pronounce it, much less spell it. But it wasn't only fruit." Blair hit himself in the head, regretting the force when it actually hurt. "Ow! Of course!"

"What? Damn it, Blair, what did I miss?" Jim scanned the list for the tenth time.

"You didn't tell them about the mohn hamantaschen?"

"Why would I? They told me fruit didn't affect these tests."

"I explained to you that it wasn't fruit ... oh shit, no. I told Mrs. Oster and you'd already gone home..."

"Enough already!" Sean demanded an end to the incomprehensible exchange. "What the hell is 'munn' and did it do the trick?"

Sid sat back and smiled, happily. "Mohn is pure poppy seed paste. Sure to show positive for morphine. Well, my work is done. You must have had quite a bit though to get that result."

Blair sighed in heartfelt relief. "Jim didn't want to try it, so I left the apricot and prune for him and a neighbor of ours. I scarfed down the rest over the course of the weekend, and on the morning of the test. I can't believe it was that simple."

Jim stared at him in disbelief. "I can't believe you're that simple. How could you NOT realize that ..."

"I thought you knew and had told the lab people!"

Sid laughed. "And if Jim had remembered the word 'mohn', how many of the staff over there would recognize it and figure it out?"

"Look, it's all an honest mistake and now we can fix it. I gotta call Simon right away though, and put him out of his misery. He can call Irwin." Jim was determined to enjoy this reprieve. Screw the recriminations.

"You do realize that this doesn't clear Blair of suspicion?" Sid eyed the young man over the tops of his reading glasses. "If anything, it points to you as a firm suspect in the case."

"Why?" Blair's eyes quickly emptied of the relief they'd harbored only moments ago.

"Because of the alternative scenario they can dream up. You use, take out a drug dealer and keep some product, but know it will lead to testing. So, you buy the hamantaschen, lie about its poppy content to Jim and act innocently when they come at you. Next test, you're clean and they can't say the first was bad for drugs now. Perfect crime."

"Thanks, Sid. Then basically, I'm fucked, no matter what happens." Blair rose, realized there was nowhere he could logically go, and sank back down onto the cushion.

"Easy, Chief. It's explained now and I'm heading to Port Angeles first thing tomorrow, to interview the trucker. You've got enough credibility with the PD to get past this, no matter what happened up there. And I'm not about to let anything bad ... I mean, I'll get the facts, one way or another." Jim swallowed, feeling stupid at having articulated that thought.

Or kill himself trying. Blair pulled it together with a visible effort. "Jim, I'm okay now. This is me being okay, see?" Blair settled back with his coffee and took a sip. "Ugh. Cold. Never mind. I got what I wanted which was an explanation. Now it's just detective work and you're the best there is at it so I'm okay now, whatever the outcome. Yeah, just good old detective work and like we always do and ..."

"Nice try, Chief, but you're still not coming with me tomorrow. You're on leave and I barely managed to get this assignment. Simon said that Megan could go with me as back-up."

"It was worth a try." Blair's grin was back. "And we can always fall back now on Sean, with the facts we've got."

"Jesus Christ, guys. Don't do this to me." Sean put his head in his hands. "You're gonna make me notorious in legal circles. I'll never hold up my head again if I have to use a 'Twinkie Defense' here."

Blair looked at him blankly, while Sid and Jim chuckled.

Sean shook his head wearily, realizing his friend was too young to recall the case. "Back in 1987, a guy named White shot and killed San Francisco's mayor and a city supervisor. The supervisor was among the first elected officials in the country to be openly gay. White, who'd resigned from office as a supervisor, shot them and got a light sentence based upon diminished capacity. Apparently, the guy was depressed and there was mention of other mental problems as well. But there was also a minor argument presented by Blinder, the defense attorney, that the killer had ingested large amounts of sugary junk foods which might have triggered intense aggressive impulses before the attack."

Blair interrupted him. "What have I been telling you about all that sugar, Jim? Makes you more aggressive!"

"Sandburg, you're the one who's been scarfing down all the sugar lately, not to mention having the hot urine that probably makes you 'wanted' in two dozen states!"

"That's really cold, man."

Connelly looked heavenward. "Don't let me interrupt, fellas. Just a little matter of your careers on the line here."

His guests subsided and the attorney concluded his tale. "Since then, any kind of claim of some weird, mitigating factor in a criminal case has been referred to as a 'Twinkie defense'. But I'm telling you right now, win or lose, I refuse to go down in history as the lawyer who took a case and pled the 'Hamantaschen defense'!"

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

Tuesday, 10:40 P.M.; the Loft:

Jim hung his jacket and gun on the hook. "I'm going to get ready for bed. Got a long drive up to Port Angeles tomorrow morning, and I still have to pick up Megan first. And would you please instruct her that her job is not to keep me from having 'psychic hot flashes'? Every time she says that I feel like I'm supposed to go on hormone therapy or something."

"She's just being tactful and avoiding the 'z' word." Blair followed Jim into the kitchen.

"She doesn't have to refer to 'zoning' at all! You take care of all that and she's strictly second string."

"Speaking of which ..."

"No." Jim extracted the carton of orange juice from the refrigerator.

"Hey, I didn't actually say anything yet. How do you know what ..."

"No. You aren't coming with me tomorrow. Does this smell fresh to you?"

"Sheesh, Megan's right. You do have psychic hot flashes and you're cranky enough to qualify for hormone therapy."

"Don't sulk, Sandburg. It isn't dignified. I guess this juice is okay."

"Nothing about this situation is dignified. Peeing hamantaschen into a cup! Who knew? I mean, who goes into a bakery and says, 'Take me into the back for the good cookies.'"

Jim's shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. Sandburg was on a tear alright and there was nothing to do but let it burn itself out.

"Or, 'Hey man, Vito wants to know what the filling of the day is today.'"

Ellison let out a strangled cough.

Blair paced. "Those cookies ought to be valued in two ways, by composition and by street value. Prune, two dollars and seventy-five cents per pound; mohn, two hundred and seventy-five dollars per kilo."

Laughing outright, Jim put down the glass of juice he'd poured for himself. It would only exit via his nose if he tried to drink it. "SANDBURG!"

Blair jumped. "What?"

"You're not coming with me."

"Okay."

"You're on administrative leave. I'm under suspicion of partiality, if not outright aiding and abetting. Megan will keep me out of trouble. Uhm, did you say really say, 'okay'?"

"Yes."

"Oh. I hesitate to sound ungrateful for the ease with which this argument is ending, but why are you giving in without even more nag... discussion?"

"I just realized that Naomi gets into town tomorrow. I'm gonna have to break this to her gently before she shows up at the station and finds out her junkie son's been suspended for celebrating Purim, four months late."

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

Wednesday, 7:30 A.M.; the Loft:

The smell of sizzling bacon rose enticingly throughout the apartment. Jim bounded down the stairs, energized by the task ahead and content to undertake the challenge on a full stomach. Attempted bribery is a real perk of living with Sandburg. It doesn't work, but he never stops trying.

The table was set, fresh-squeezed orange juice appeared at his place and several slices of bacon were artfully arranged around scrambled eggs on a plate. He grinned at his roommate and chef in residence, for the moment at any rate. "Thank you."

Blair sat down next to him and nursed the cup of coffee that had apparently helped to get him sufficiently awake to manage the cooking session. "You're welcome."

Jim ate heartily and in silence.

"Jim?"

Here it comes.

"I've been thinking."

"And here I thought it was the scent of bacon burning."

"I sent out my reply to Monday's FedEx about the settlement with the University. It's unlikely that there will be any resistance to it. I'd like to give you some of that money since I never really paid my full way ..."

"Sandburg, you don't owe me anything. We shared everything we had, whether it was real estate, the contents of a refrigerator, or knowledge. Not another word about it or I'll have to get nasty."

Blair waited a beat. "How will I know?"

A napkin, turned projectile, hit him in the face. "Oh, that's how."

Jim took his emptied plate to the sink, as good a way as any to avoid making a reply. The phone rang, happily ending the awkward moment. "Ellison."

"Jim, how wonderful to hear your voice. I was hoping I'd catch you both before you left for work."

"Naomi, you sound terrific. Your timing is perfect, although I'm the only one going to the office today. Blair has the day off and is looking forward to seeing you. Here he is."

"Mom! How are you, is the house okay? Sure, you can come over. Lots to tell you about."

Jim recognized the pause for what it was, Naomi's request for a trailer on the upcoming announcements, although he refrained from listening in on the conversation.

"You know how it is, Naomi. Like life, some of it's great, some not so great. No, you have to wait for the great stuff so get on over here. Okay, love you, too. Bye." Blair hung up the phone and grinned. "Okay, you're really off the hook now. I was gonna ask to come along again, if Naomi was delayed."

"Well, you apparently wasted your culinary talents in that case. The answer would still have been 'no'."

"Not wasted. Now you won't be tempted to eat some crap with Megan on the road this morning. That was nitrate-free turkey bacon."

"Good stuff. You can attempt to bribe this particular officer anytime you like. I won't even tell Internal Affairs, as long as the bribe doesn't contain tofu."

Blair joined Jim by the kitchen counter to refill his coffee cup. "I think IA already has enough rope to hang me with at present, thank you."

Jim put a sympathetic hand on Blair's shoulder. "Sorry, tasteless joke under the circumstances. But this will be finished by the end of the week, for sure."

"I know. What can I do at this end?"

"Enjoy your mother's visit. Check on Mrs. Oster. Clean up your room."

"SO glad I asked."

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

Naomi sank into the couch cushions with a steaming mug of tea. Her flush of pleasure from the news of his successful dissertation defense was fading fast in light of the news about the positive drug screen results.

"But it's nothing to worry about now that everyone knows about the reason for it." Blair hoped his mother would be satisfied with that reassuring statement. "And Jim is up in Port Angeles right now, taking care of the rest of the details."

Blair waited for the usual condemnations regarding paramilitary groups and the automatic assumptions of guilt for everyone, including their own. God only knows, I uttered a few choice phrases about it myself, when I was peeing into cups.

"Sweetie, I am so happy for you, getting your degree."

Yes! Moving forward here. "Yeah, it is although I seem to recall you said something to the effect that the actual paper didn't matter. That it's what I've learned that really counts."

"I still think that, Blair. But I also think you need the paper to remind you, and others now, of your scholarship. You've left it behind to compete in the world on their terms."

Okay, guess we're going there after all. Blair swallowed his immediate protest. Naomi was often 'ditzy' but was capable of some real insight when she chose to concentrate on an issue. "They're my terms now, Naomi. I chose them and I'm not competing with anyone. Just doing new things is all."

Naomi's continued scrutiny left him squirming. This is so not what I want to think about right now.

"You've always been honest about what you wanted, Sweetie. But you are a scholar as well. Aren't you suppressing that part of yourself in order to fit in with that ... group you joined."

"Mom!" The warning tone was more perfunctory than exasperated. He was conscious of a sense of truth from her words, resonating within him. He smiled in resignation. "That 'group' I joined isn't exactly a fraternity, despite some of the posturing that goes on."

"You refused to join any fraternities while you were at Rainier."

"I wasn't precisely frat material, although one of the brainier groups did try to 'rush' me."

"Why didn't you go? You would have had better housing."

"I couldn't see needing another membership besides my Rainier I.D. card, to identify me as belonging within a place of higher learning. And you would've had a meltdown, Naomi. Don't try to deny it!"

"Well, I would have heard you out and understood if you needed a greater feeling of acceptance. You were very young ..." Naomi trailed off, knowing his early college enrollment had been at her behest.

"Old news." Blair smiled at her. They'd talked about how the social penalties of early enrollment in college had been fierce. Still, he'd never been able to hold a grudge against his mercurial mother's less well thought-out decisions. Like the one they still avoided discussing which had led to his becoming a cop. The elephant in the room. "But the degree will allow me to teach just about anything I want now, assuming I have the expertise. The PhD is the entrance fee for teaching, but no one is all that particular about the area in which you hold it."

"You mean, perhaps teaching police science? I just don't see that kind of teaching as being fulfilling for you."

"Well, they don't exactly need me to teach courses in ballistics. I mean, teaching the cultural aspects about how cops interact with people and communities, instead of controlling them."

Blair had a momentary pang of regret for his choice of words when his mother's eyes kindled briefly at the reminder that her son now had the capacity to 'control' others using a badge and gun.

"That might be a good thing to do with your degree," she hedged.

"But I want to do more than just affect community relations. To tell you the truth, Naomi, I've been thinking about going back to school in forensic psychology. The department would foot the bill for most of the tuition and it would be really useful in the type of law enforcement that Jim and I practice with our, er, his, uhm, talents." Although Jim's gonna hate the idea of me studying psychology, like I don't analyze him enough already. Yet, a shaman-psychologist was precisely what their partnership needed.

He was somewhat shocked by the realization that it was his conversations with his mother over the past months, which had brought him to understand the full value of what he had thrown away at that press conference. What he apparently still needed in order to advance as a whole man. His scholarship abilities, paired with his imperative to ... well, to do.

Naomi narrowed her eyes and then demanded, "What are you trying not to tell me, Blair Sandburg?"

Blair sighed. His mother had always been able to read him like a book, but he hesitated about telling her the whole truth. Still, his spirituality was so important to Naomi that depriving her of the knowledge that he was now a bona-fide Shaman seemed cruel. Well, a fledgling shaman, at any rate. And hell, if he was going to be completely honest with himself, he still wanted her approval in some aspect of his life. She was, after all, his Mom.

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

Wednesday, 11:45 A.M.; Port Angeles PD:

"So, what are you and Sandy bringing to the Fourth of July picnic?" Megan delicately grasped the open collar of her teal silk blouse and waved the slightly damp fabric back and forth. They were both uncomfortable in the heat and humidity of this first day of July. "And may I take this opportunity to ask you to refrain from bringing any baked goods?"

"Very funny." Ellison smiled, humorlessly, at her reference to the pastry that had gotten Blair into trouble, as he removed the tie he'd worn in deference to their 'guest status' in this precinct. Megan glanced at him questioningly. "They saw that I was wearing it when we got here. Good enough."

"No argument from me, Jim. I'm bloody annoyed to be wearing good clothing on a hot summer's day in this lousy, ancient building. And you won't even let me take a drink from the water fountain!"

"Sandburg said the water in this city was contaminated. You wanna drink, be my guest, but he's usually right about these things. Get something from the vending machines upstairs."

"Fine. You want something, too?"

"Yeah, a mineral water or any cold liquid will be fine. Thanks."

Jim watched her enter the elevator and then flipped open his cell phone.

"Hi, Jim." Jim heard Blair tell his mother that he'd be right back with her.

"Hey, Chief. I'm here at the precinct and we've been sitting around for an hour waiting for them to produce the truck driver for us to question. It's hot as Hades here, no AC working. Megan wants to know what you and Naomi are bringing to the picnic on Sunday."

The voice at the other end of the connection was disgustingly cheery, but then the fans at the loft made the heat bearable and the kid was probably wearing a tee shirt and cut-offs instead of a freaking tie. "More like, you want to remind me to tell Naomi that we're doing the honors on Sunday (yeah, Mom, I'll tell you all about it in a minute). I'll also bet Megan told you not to bring any cookies or brownies with us."

"She may have made some suggestions to that effect. Can't say as I blame her. Everything okay with you guys?"

"We're good, man. Don't worry about Sunday. We'll have a shopping list ready for you when you get home."

"Yeah, forgot about that part. Simon told me that your new test results ought to be in tomorrow. Sid told Connelly that from the concentrations in the last lab work, your new results should show up clear."

"Great. Meantime, I'm having a great time with my Mom, and Simon says he's going to stop by at lunch to see us."

Megan exited the elevator in the company of a uniformed officer. "Gotta go now, Chief. See you later." Ellison closed his phone and got up from the hard bench he'd been occupying.

"Jim, this is Officer Blythdale. He's going to escort us to the interrogation room." Megan made the introductions while handing over a bottle of lemonade.

"Nice to meet you." Jim both saw and felt Blythdale sizing him up as they shook hands. He then took a swig from the sweating bottle, registering the cold slide of liquid with the pleasure his enhanced senses afforded him.

"Same here, Detective. This way, please." As they went up to the fifth floor in the elevator, the officer filled them in on the perp's insistence that he'd been carrying five kilos more of heroin than had actually been logged into the evidence locker. "So far, his lawyer's been advising him not to take the lie detector test since he's already busted for smuggling. May as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb."

"Makes sense. Is the D.A. at all interested in getting him a deal?"

"For what? Recanting and clearing possibly guilty cops of suspicion?"

"Good point. Nothing happening here except a pretty well-crafted revenge on all of us who caught him. Assuming he's lying, that is." Jim's head tilted slightly to the side and Megan casually grasped his elbow. The gesture was idly noted by the Port Angeles officer and dismissed as a bit of intra-office fraternization. The elevator doors opened.

They entered the interrogation room, finding the prisoner already seated at a table. The attending officer left with Blythdale, ostensibly to offer them privacy. Ellison assumed the other officers would be going into the observation room. In fact, he was counting on it. Ellison sat across from the smirking trucker, rudely appearing to ignore his partner. Megan stood behind him, a hand carelessly resting upon his shoulder.

The trucker's smirk was short-lived.

"We're going to cut this short, Carlisle. Turns out, we don't need to talk with you after all. We just found the missing kilos in your truck when we went through it again, in the roof of the cab." Ellison registered the sound of Carlisle's heart increasing in rate and intensity of activity. "So basically, your story about the amounts you confessed to smuggling is confirmed, all is accounted for and you go down the tubes very nicely without any effort on our parts. Have a nice life." Jim rose as if to leave.

"Hey, wait just a fuckin' minute! You couldn't have found more in the truck!"

Megan calmly raised an eyebrow. "And why is that?"

"You guys make a deal with me and I'll tell you who has it and why."

"I told you we had the rest of the smack, so we don't need anything else from you." Jim gestured for Megan to precede him into the corridor. "Detective Conner, tell the duty officer we're ready to go."

"You bastards can't just walk away. One of your people is dirty as hell if they got hold of five kilos and planted it in my truck! Somebody's trying to avoid being accused of dealing. There wasn't any additional smack. I lied about it. So who the fuck planted more in my truck? I didn't need to get you guys all paranoid, you already have good reason for it, you dirty fuckers."

"Got that recorded, Megan?"

"Right here, Jim." She flashed the pocket recorder at him, driving Carlisle's anger at losing his chance to plea bargain into the realm of blind rage. The smuggler shoved the table into Megan's midsection, doubling her over the table. One of his hands was cuffed to the table but his reach was long enough to grasp Megan's throat with his free hand.

Megan was used to being underestimated because of her sex, particularly when wearing a skirt. Not expecting much in the way of action on this little jaunt, the narrow A-line she'd worn was definitely in the way.

The sound of fabric ripping was loud in Jim's ears as Megan turned sideways and landed a vicious kick to Carlisle's ribs just below the extended arm. He automatically loosened his grasp, only to be grabbed by Jim as Megan hit the floor, coughing as she took in gulps of air around a bruised larynx.

Winded from the kick, Carlisle's struggles were ineffectual and he lost consciousness at the first punch landed by the enraged senior detective. Blythdale and the other duty officer burst into the room as Jim moved to help Megan to her feet.

"You alright?" Jim hesitated, never sure how Megan would respond to offers of help. She nodded and steadied herself by lightly leaning against Ellison's sturdy frame.

He moved her hand away from the injury and studied the marks on her throat. "Sorry, I should've seen that coming." He glanced down at her ruined clothing.

"Don't apologize for that," she croaked. "But you can stop staring at my legs." She clutched at the remains of what now qualified as a half-sarong.

Ellison coughed to cover his amusement and then glared at the gawking duty officer who was openly enjoying the view. The narrow skirt lacked the necessary yardage for clutching the fabric closed over the exposed hip. Jim swiftly removed his jacket and helped Megan tie it around her waist by the sleeves. "I've been looking for an excuse to shed this jacket all day."

"Glad to be of service." Megan sipped at the remains of her water bottle and massaged her throat, which was already turning impressive colors. "That sod has one hell of grip."

Ellison and Megan left Carlisle to Blythdale and exited the room. In the elevator, Jim whipped out his cell phone and called Simon. He could hear the laughter in the background as the dour Captain growled his response.

"Banks."

"It's me, Simon. Am I hearing Naomi laughing?"

"Yeah, I'm having lunch in the Sandburg Zone today. Whaddyagot?"

"A taped confession by the perp that he lied about the extra smack. But I don't wanna give it up to the rubes here. This tape is too important to Sandburg for me to just turn it over to them. Can you tell them that it has to go straight to Irwin in Cascade? If you make a call to the Captain here, we might avoid an argument."

"It's not my territory, Jim. You're there as a courtesy to me. Well, more like a favor I cashed in to get you over there. That's terrific news, by the way - Hey Sandburg! Jim got the trucker to admit he lied, on tape. You're in the clear, assuming your urine is, too. Jim, I'll call Irwin and tell her you want to hand the tape over to her personally, since it's your partner's ass on the line here. If she's the one who calls, the Port Angeles brass can't argue too hard about it."

"Thanks, Simon. You've been a rock through all this."

"Can't hear you, too much CHEERING going on here - HOLD IT DOWN, oh, didn't mean to yell at you, Ms. Sandburg. Uh, okay, Jim. I'll call Irwin right now. Got the damn woman on speed dial after the past few days! No, not talking about your Mom, Sandburg. What do you mean we're having tongue for lunch! Whose tongue? Geez, get home, Jim."

The connection ended abruptly.

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

Thursday, 9:30 A.M.; Captain Banks' Office:

"Here you go, Sandburg." Simon handed him a letter. "IA just faxed over this official clearance based on the latest lab test and the evidence acquired by your partner. You'll be happy to know the department has closed this investigation of your involvement in this matter. Upper echelons have decided they're not particularly interested in your 'cookie habit'."

"It's okay. I've given up hamantaschen altogether. Hassle to buy, hassle to detox, no twelve-step programs for addiction to it ..."

"Not funny, Sandburg." Banks wasn't in the mood to laugh about the past few days and turned his attention to Jim and Megan. "The two of you played out a very nice bluff. Well done, guys. Conner, how's the throat this morning? Looks rough from here."

"A bit sore but no damage, as I told your senior detective here, yesterday."

Jim sighed. Megan's injury had made her more short-tempered than usual. "Look, I was a medic, okay? An injury like that could have fractured your larynx and interfered with your breathing at some point. We had to make that ER stop."

Simon seconded Jim on that score. "Absolutely the right call, Ellison. Conner, I don't ever want to hear you refused medical care after any kind of injury, no matter how minor it seems. And this didn't qualify as minor, so you're on desk duty for now."

"But the X-ray was negative!"

"And Jim tells me the doctor said you have to take it easy for a day or so and make sure that any swelling you may have from it doesn't affect your breathing. Now, I know Australians can read English, so read that sign on my door. The one that says 'Captain'. It means you obey when issued an order."

"Yes, Sir."

"So," Jim rubbed his hands together as if cleansing them, "we get to close the book on this one?"

"It's done and thank you all for handling this disgusting business in a professional manner. I know it was rough on both of you."

"Thank you, Captain." Blair appreciated his superior's sincerity and empathy. "For everything you did for me, for us."

Banks turned away to pour himself a cup of coffee. "You're welcome. But notice how I'm only pouring a single cup here so that my staff can return to their desks and turn out some work for our little department."

Taking the 'hint', the three detectives gratefully returned to their routines.

Sitting down at their adjoining workstations, Jim studied Blair as the younger man booted up his computer. The scrutiny finally impinging upon his consciousness, Blair looked up at his partner. "What?"

"Are you okay, Chief? This has been a really rough week for you."

"For all of us. You did great up at Port Angeles, although I think Megan is ready to kill you for not letting her know your plans in advance."

"I didn't have any advance plans. I could read him pretty clearly though, that he was bluffing so I just ran the same scam on him."

"That was more detective than sentinel at work there. You really saved my ass."

"Just one of my jobs, Chief. Guarding your tuchas."

"Oh, man, that is getting so old ... hey, you pronounced it right!"

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

Saturday, 2:00 P.M.; the Loft:

Blair had the assembly-line of materials set up for preparing the array of foods they would take to the picnic the next day. Naomi and Mrs. Oster were sitting at the table, kibitzing over coffee, as the old Yiddish saying went. Mrs. 'O' toasted him with her mug. "Very nice choice in foods, Blair. Perfect for a warm, summer day and light enough for those who are planning to participate in the sports events."

"I'll pre-chill the cooler in the morning with ice before we pack up the food. It'll stay very well through the morning hours. I'm throwing in the fridge thermometer also. If it's as hot tomorrow as it got earlier this week, I'll be able to make sure the dressing has been kept at forty degrees or less. If not, it can be thrown away and people can have the salad without the dressing. A higher temp won't hurt the vegetables if the dressing is kept separately."

"Where did you learn to do all this, Blair?"

"I worked as a short-order cook one summer and we had all kinds of health department rules to follow. I was drilled in all the regs 'cause there was a scheduled inspection of the diner that summer." Blair began washing all the vegetables Jim had brought home, true to his promise to take care of the shopping. Bowls were gradually filled with diced tomatoes, zucchini, and bell peppers in three colors, olives, cucumbers and sweet onions. These would be combined in the larger serving bowl with some toasted almonds, just before packing tomorrow, to prevent the vegetables from losing their crispness from the natural acidity and high water content of the tomato pieces.

"I called for assistants, not cheerleaders," he told them, suppressing a smile.

"We're guests, Sweetie, not galley slaves. Besides, we're busy working out a budget for you if you decide to take over Mrs. Oster's apartment. You're pretty tight with that student loan."

"Oh, that's the other good news. No more student loans and I'm getting a rebate on what I already paid on them this past year." He checked himself, realizing his neighbor wouldn't understand the issues involved, "It's their way of compensating me for a variety of, uhm, services rendered. I can afford my own place now. And if you need anything, Naomi ..."

His mother jumped up and hugged him tightly. "I'm fine," she whispered in his ear. "Got everything I need, right here."

Jim joined them just as Blair was getting started on the dressing. He laughed through Blair's running commentary on the dressing components, issued in a 'Julia Child' voice. Basil and thyme were chopped and added to a base of olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a dash of salt and pepper. Poured into an empty mayonnaise jar, it would serve as an optional dressing for the pita salad sandwiches. Another jar held commercially produced tahini, as that was too time-consuming to make.

Making himself useful by putting saran wrap on the cut vegetables and sliding them into the refrigerator, Jim saw the fixings for Blair's low fat oven-fried chicken. It was obviously intended for their dinner. It was also a lot of trouble to prepare so Blair rarely made it, despite the fact they both enjoyed it immensely.

"Okay, Chief. What are you buttering me up for?

"No butter, Jim. Too much fat."

Naomi winced as Blair ducked a swat to his head, despite the fact it was clearly meant to miss connecting with the long locks. "Now, Jim. Play nice!"

"I'm trying, Naomi. Just trying to figure out whether I'll be asked to agree to something impossible before or after this chicken gets cooked. It's all in the timing. He introduces the subject now, I have to put off saying no until the meal gets cooked. If he waits to introduce the subject until after the meal, I don't have to tap dance as much. So, how hard do I have to work for this dinner, Chief?"

The women giggled while Blair complained he was being grossly maligned. It was all the funnier since they knew what was coming up.

"Okay, Jim. I'm busted. Here's what I'd like to know. May I cut a hole in your wall?"

"I think I need to see an ear doctor. I could have sworn you said you wanted to cut a hole in the wall."

"Yes, Jim."

"In what alternate universe did you think you might receive permission to destroy part of this apartment? Just out of curiosity, since I still don't believe you'd ask such a thing."

"That would be the universe in which I occupy the apartment next door and we put in an opening which effectively turns each unit into an extension of the other. That would be called a door. Right about here." Blair walked over to the shared wall between the units and slapped it at the point where a door would logically be installed. He'd decided that this was the only way to introduce the subject and prevent Jim from envisioning yet another abandonment in his life. That, or the even more nightmarish concept of a Jim who jumped up and down with glee at the idea that Blair might be moving to a more distant location. Yeah, that would be even worse.

"Breathe, Sandburg." Jim grabbed a beer while he contemplated the prospect.

Blair watched the subtle play of emotions that only an experienced observer could read; the movements of individual muscles in the strong jaw and the light lines around the eyelids, now half-closed in concentration. A few contemplative swigs later, a smile crept over the stoic countenance Jim always adopted when seriously jolted by the unexpected. No doubt about it, the shock had worn off. He was now sporting the expression of a man who had not only baked his cake, but knew it was entirely his own, once the time came for dessert to be served. Definitely a good sign.

The smile widened further and was turned upon the slightly anxious, younger man. Jim spoke with a lightness of being that Blair hadn't heard in some time.

"I assume you weren't planning on using a cannon?"

THE END

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