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

On Ice

by Arianna

To Tia, in gratitude for your generous donation to Moonridge! (and with many thanks for your patience!)

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

Ten days before Christmas, sleety rain drizzled intermittently from the heavy clouds hovering over the city, leaving the world a monochromatic gray on gray that even the holiday banners and large tinseled wreaths and bells hung on every other lamp post couldn't brighten. If anything, they looked limp and tawdry, weighted down by wet and dreary with age. His fingertips tapping an irritated tattoo on the steering wheel, Blair sighed at the heavy, stop and go traffic, everyone being extra careful on streets made slushy and slippery by the wet, cold and dismal weather that was so typical of Cascade in early December. He'd told Jim that he'd make it, for sure, for lunch, and then would help with the case reports afterward, but it had taken longer than he'd hoped to finish up before the holiday break, with students lined up in the hallway outside his office wanting last minute guidance with assignments they'd be tackling over the next few weeks. He was definitely late -- again.

When he finally made it to the underground garage, he raced across the scuffed cement floor and into the bleak corridor beyond to scamper into the elevator just before the doors closed, grimacing with impatience when he discovered it was jam-packed, mostly with uniformed personnel, and every button for every floor between the basement garage and the sixth was lit. He considered getting out on the ground level and making a run for it up the stairs, but figured he'd be no further ahead. Late was late -- what were a few more seconds going to matter? As people entered and left, he edged his way to the back, fairly vibrating with impatience.

Finally, finally, the doors opened to the hallway outside of the Major Crimes Unit, and he pushed his way out and through the tide of humanity that was waiting to get inside the elevator. He caught a bare glimpse of Jim and Simon disappearing into the far stairwell, no doubt having given up waiting both for him and for an elevator to lurch its way upward. Rolling his eyes, he dashed down the hall, having to duck around others who were heading out for lunch or other errands around the building. "Hey, Hairboy! How's it hanging?" H called out as he and Rafe rushed to catch the elevator he'd just vacated, and he laughed, waving and chanting, "I'm late, I'm late, I'm very, very late! Catch you later!" over his shoulder. Pushing open the heavy fire-door to the stairs, he heard the sounds of Simon's and Jim's hurrying footsteps, already at least a floor below, and was about to call out for them to wait when Jim's voice drifted up and he started down while he listened, not wanting to interrupt.

"I'm just saying I think it's time to cool it for awhile," Ellison was saying. "Sort of put him on ice, you know? For when I really need help. But I'm doing pretty well -- and, well, you were absolutely right. He shouldn't have gone in on the last case. It was too dangerous and we're just lucky he didn't get shot."

Blair frowned and paused.

"I don't know, Jim," Banks rumbled as they continued downward. "He's been a lot of help to you in the past couple of years. Are you sure you can manage on your own?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," Ellison replied flatly. "Think about it, Simon. In the last few months he's what? Tagged along up in the mountains and managed to get beaten up and damned near killed by that psycho hunter, and got shot -- when I was doing fine, would have done fine on my own, and he was only one more thing to worry about. And then he got his friend involved in the Cyclops Oil mess, and she ended up getting killed, when she really had no business taking those risks. After that, well, let's just say his judgment was questionable during the investigation of Orvelle Wallace and I ... well, I'm not sure I can trust him the way I thought I could. Less than two weeks ago, he had to take out a dirty Fish and Games Officer on his own, and yesterday, we were just lucky that we weren't both killed. It's just been one thing after another, and it's all gotten out of hand."

"Well, they're your senses and your call," Simon replied, their voices growing fainter and more distant, as Blair sagged down onto the step, stunned. "You going to tell him you don't want him going off on cases with you? Can't say I envy you that. You know he'll be disappointed."

"I know," Jim sighed, his voice growing hard to hear. "But he's got to have enough to finish his dissertation -- God knows, he's done a million tests. It's ... it's -"

But Blair didn't wait to hear more. Pushing himself to his feet, he whirled back into the main hallway and leaned against the wall, feeling sick and wondering what to do. Jim didn't want him hanging around anymore? Didn't see any more need for his help? Thought he just got in the way? Didn't trust him? God. Thought it was his fault that Janet was killed? Closing his eyes, crossing his arms, Blair fought the sudden urge to retch, dragging in slow, deep breaths. But Jim had known that Janet had offered to get that information for them -- hadn't said anything then about ordering her to stay uninvolved. Oh, shit. Shit. Tears burned in his eyes, but he blinked them away. He'd blamed himself at the time, but Jim had said it wasn't his fault. But now it seemed his friend had only been trying to make him feel better. Had only been tolerating his presence. For how long?

His hands shaking, pale with the shock of what he'd just heard, Sandburg wandered into the bullpen, empty now that everyone had cleared out for lunch. Slowly, he made his way to Jim's desk and sank down onto the chair, feeling numb and disoriented. He couldn't think, couldn't get past the astonishment and the sick, sick realization that he'd gotten one friend killed and ... and Jim didn't want him around anymore. It was overwhelming. Devastating. He felt cold, icy cold, and started to shake, disgusted with himself for not being sure which realization was worse, more painful, harder to bear.

"Oh, God, Janet," he whispered brokenly, his grief and guilt as raw and wretched as when they'd found her body. "I'm sorry. God, I'm so sorry."

Crossing his arms and bowing his head, he curled into himself, telling himself he had to get a grip. He couldn't let anyone see him like this. Again, he fought to deepen and slow his breathing, but the memory of Jim's words, the sound of his voice, so cold and fed up, kept intruding, spiraling him back into the depths of despair. A distraction. He needed a distraction to focus his thoughts, his mind, to shut out thoughts and emotions too hard, too much to bear. Taking a shaky breath, he looked around, wondering if he should just go. But the Lazar case file he was supposed to help finish was lying on the blotter. He'd promised to help; it was one last commitment he could fulfill. Ignoring the note on top that told him where to meet Jim and Simon for lunch, forcing away the understanding that lunch hadn't been a sort of end of term celebration but the excuse to get him away from the office to tell him his ride was over, he lethargically flipped it open and concentrated on the top report form until he was focused enough to recognize it. Letting his backpack slip off his arm to the floor, he doggedly began completing the necessary documents.

Forty minutes later, he'd done all he could. That was it. The last thing Jim had wanted from him. Glancing at the clock on the wall, he realized he'd better take off before anyone got back from lunch -- he couldn't bear to pretend everything was just fine. Couldn't imagine facing anyone. Did they all know how Jim felt? Did they know he was being given his walking papers that day? Hurrying now, he closed the file, and wrote a short note on a yellow, sticky slip that he had some errands to run and would see Jim later.

And then he left, taking the stairs quickly, feeling a pressing need to escape.

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

"Guess Sandburg must've gotten stuck at Rainier," Simon observed as they pulled out their wallets and split the lunch tab.

"Yeah," Jim sighed. "End of term is always hectic -- grading papers and exams, students suddenly realizing they haven't got a clue and need counseling. The holidays are worse than summer break. Then the kids just want to get out and play, but this time of year, they're like everyone else. Stressed out."

Banks chuckled and led the way back out to the street. They both checked out the heavily laden clouds that seemed stuck over the city, but at least it had stopped raining. Cutting a sideways look at his subordinate and friend as they ambled back to Headquarters, he asked, "You feeling less strung out than when we left for lunch?"

Jim grimaced, but nodded. "I just get so ... well, worried, I guess, that one of these times he's going to get himself killed," he allowed, almost grudgingly. Shrugging, he went on slowly, "But, yeah -- getting it off my chest helped, thanks."

"Well, that's my job," Simon replied dryly. "Keeping my men from going off half-cocked and screwing up a good thing." He looped an arm around Ellison's shoulders, and counseled, "You know damned well that his friend got us invaluable information on Cyclops -- and you know as well as I do that it was in no way Blair's fault that the girl got killed. And we both know you might easily have gotten in trouble going after Quinn to rescue me if he hadn't been there to keep you from zoning on the scent or tracks. Damn it, Jim, I know you worry about him, but he holds up pretty good. Just, oh, I don't know, talk to him about being more careful."

Snorting, Jim shook his head. "You think I haven't? Sandburg just keeps saying he can't back me up from inside the truck. And he's right. But ..."

Patting his back, Banks let his arm fall away. "The two of you make a good team," he said reflectively as they approached the entrance to the Police Department. "I know it won't go on forever, but talk to him about how he feels about it all. If he still wants to keep backing you up, even after staring into the barrel of a gun yesterday, and you can get your protective instincts under control, I think the status quo works pretty well."

Chewing on his lip, Jim nodded solemnly in agreement. Sandburg was a great partner and he didn't have any desire to work with anyone else. And the kid did help with the senses -- a lot. He just didn't want to ever have to live with the responsibility of Blair getting killed while backing him up -- or even getting hurt badly again, like he had eighteen months before when Sandburg had been crushed in the truck. Blair had very nearly died that time, and it had taken months for him to recover. Jim never, ever, wanted to see his friend suffering like that again. Every time Sandburg had been hurt since, or was even just in a risky situation, Ellison's chest clenched with a primal fear and an imperative urge to protect that he couldn't seem to either suppress or ignore. But Simon was right; he'd been over-reacting because of how tight things had gotten the day before. He just felt so hollow inside whenever he thought about how easily it could have gone bad -- very bad.

Inside, they found Brown and Rafe in the crowd waiting for the next elevator. When Henri looked around and saw them, he grinned and then, looking past, asked, "Where's Hairboy? I thought he'd be coming back with you."

Simon shrugged. "Guess he couldn't get away from Rainier."

"No, no, he was here -- headed off down the stairwell right behind you," Rafe told them. "He got off the elevator less than a minute after you guys left. You mean he didn't catch you?"

When they simply looked mystified and shook their heads, Brown frowned. "That's odd," he muttered as the doors pinged open and they all entered. "He sure seemed in a hurry when he barreled after you."

Glancing at Jim, Simon asked, "Well, if he was right behind us, why didn't he ..." But his voice died as he remembered what they'd been talking about in the stairwell, and from the look on Ellison's face, the same thought had just occurred to him.

"Maybe he's still upstairs," Rafe suggested, looking from his superior to Jim, frowning at the concern clouding their faces and wondering what was wrong.

"Maybe," Jim grunted, impatiently watching the indicator lights above the doors.

But Sandburg wasn't there when they arrived. Striding to his desk, Jim saw the note stuck on top of the file and swallowed. Flipping it open, he quickly noted that Blair had finished off the reports even as he was reaching for the phone to call Rainier. Not getting an answer, he dialed home, and cursed softly when he got a busy signal and slammed the phone back into its cradle. Looking up at Simon, who had followed him to his desk, he said tightly, "He's at home, but on the phone."

"Jim, if he overheard us ..."

"I know, I know," Ellison cut in.

Sighing, Banks said grimly, "Well, try him again in a couple minutes. If you still can't reach him, maybe you'd better track him down."

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

"No, no, don't apologize and, hey, please don't feel bad. You were absolutely right to call me," Sandburg said into the phone, raking his hair back, shaken by what he'd just heard and very angry though he kept that out of his voice as he continued reassuringly. "God, I'm just glad you're going to be okay. Look, I'll be there in about two hours, and we can figure out what to do then, all right? You just hang in -- and tell them you won't accept any visitors but me, you got that?" He listened, nodded sharply. "Fine. Don't worry. Everything will be okay. I'll see you soon."

Hanging up, he dashed to his bedroom and, not sure how long he'd be away, tossed clothing and the other gear he might need into a backpack and suitcase. His hands were shaking with anger and anxiety about what he'd just learned and his thoughts were jumping around, wondering how he would best get more information about the situation without raising suspicions. His inclination was to just march in and demand answers, but that probably wouldn't get him very far. He needed to get on the inside and, though it was a stretch, maybe there was a way to do that. Nodding to himself, he dug into the back of his closet and pulled out what he'd need if his scam worked. A fast trip to the bathroom to gather up his toiletries and he was ready to go. Pausing at the door, he thought for a minute, realizing he had to leave Jim a note, however much he wished he could just disappear for a while after having overheard the conversation in the stairwell. Dumping his suitcase and backpack, he turned to rummage in a kitchen drawer for some paper and a pen, and was just jotting down a brief message when the phone rang. Glancing at the caller ID, he shook his head and went back to writing. Two rings later, the answering machine kicked in and he heard Jim say, "Sandburg, pick up. I know you're there. We, uh, I think we need to talk."

"No shit," Blair muttered under his breath. "But not over the phone, man. And not now. I really don't need to hear how little you think of me right now."

He finished up the note, grabbed his bags and left the loft.

Ten minutes later, his gear in the trunk, he was accelerating up the entrance ramp onto I-5. Merging into the southbound traffic, Blair couldn't help thinking how weird the universe sometimes was, for he didn't really believe in coincidences. If the call for help had come the day before, or even that morning, he would have been torn, his profound desire to respond warring with his soul-deep commitment to be there for Jim, so long as Jim needed him. But overhearing his partner's remarks, however hard they'd been to hear, had set him free to go with a clear conscience to render whatever aide he could to someone he owed more than he could ever repay.

But man, hearing all that had hurt. Still hurt so much it took his breath away. After all they'd been through, after the tests and trials of friendship they'd survived, he wouldn't have thought that Jim would ever resent him the way he'd sounded in the stairwell. Why hadn't Jim just told him that he was getting in the way? Or had Jim tried and he just hadn't been listening, because that sure in hell wasn't a message he ever wanted to hear. And yeah, he'd pulled a fast one withholding information on the evidence building up against Orvelle, but he had come clean to Jim, and he'd been proven right in the end. Orvelle was innocent. Had that single act of withholding information been all it had taken to abrogate Jim's hard-won trust in him? Sighing, gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were white, he raked his hair back from his face and swallowed hard, trying, really, really trying not to think about how Janet's death was all his fault.

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

When Jim rapped on his door and then entered to hand him the file on the Lazar case, Simon looked up, his brows arched in question. "You get in touch with him?" he asked.

Shaking his head, Ellison looked away. "He's not picking up the phone. I've left messages, but he's not calling back, either."

"He heard us, didn't he?" Banks sighed, frowning in concern.

Nodding, he replied somberly, "Yeah, if he was as close behind us as Rafe and H said, he had to have heard at least some of it."

The Captain rubbed his mouth. "Look, maybe you'd better go check on him," he muttered uncomfortably.

"He's a grown man, Simon, not a child," Jim resisted. "A few remarks out of context aren't going to shatter him. I'll clear it up tonight."

Leaning back in his chair, Banks looked unconvinced. "I don't know, Jim. As I recall, you said some serious things. Like you don't want him around anymore and he gets in the way. And that you don't trust him and it's his fault his friend got killed. Those are pretty heavy messages to absorb."

"Yeah, but you know I didn't mean all that, not the way it sounded," Ellison rasped, wishing he'd kept his damned mouth shut.

"I know it. You know it. But right now, he doesn't know it. I think you might want to take off early and sort this out with him," Simon counseled, sitting forward, his hands on the desk. "He's done too good a job to be left thinking that that's how we see him."

Capitulating, feeling an internal sense of urgency to clear up the whole thing with Sandburg, Jim nodded. "All right. Thank you, sir. I'll, uh, I'll see you in the morning."

But when Ellison arrived home, he saw that the Volvo was gone. Chewing on his lip, before he got out of the truck and locked it, he wondered if Blair had gone back to the university after all. Wheeling back out, he drove to Rainier and around the parking lot adjacent to Hargrove Hall, but the lot was nearly empty and, when he listened for Sandburg's voice in the building, he got nothing. The place seemed deserted -- everyone gone for the holidays. Shaking his head, trying to not feel anxious, thinking that maybe Sandburg had just gone out to run the errands mentioned in the note, he went back to the loft. Given that Sandburg's parking slot was still empty, Jim wasn't surprised to hear nothing but silence emanating from the apartment.

Once inside, he looked around but everything looked pretty much as it had that morning. Hanging up his jacket and moving toward the kitchen, he spotted the note on the counter and froze momentarily, a sinking feeling in his gut. But he told himself not to be a fool. Blair had probably just left another message saying he'd gone shopping and would be back with dinner.

However, when he got close enough to read the familiar scrawl, his mouth went dry. Feeling his chest tighten, he read the message again, looking for clues as to where the kid had gone.

Jim, I've gone out of town for a while, to help a friend who is hurt and maybe in trouble. Don't know how long I'll be away or where I'll be staying. Sorry to take off in such a rush, but I guess you won't mind too much. Be a nice break for you, probably. And it's not like you need me around much anymore. My cell's on the blink, but I'll call you once I know what's going on, or at least to give you a heads-up when I'm headed back to Cascade. Blair. PS. If I'm not around for Christmas, hope it's a good one, and Happy New Year, if I miss that, too.

"Son of a bitch!" Jim growled as he crumpled the note in his fist, only to smooth it back out again, and read it for a third time. No clue about who the friend was, what the trouble might be, where he was going, or for how long, only that it might be for weeks. But more than enough clues to know he'd heard too much of what he'd never been meant to hear. And one last clue. Back to Cascade. Not back home or to the loft, but just back to the city. No guarantee as to when he might call, and no way to call him. And a postscript to drive home the fact that he hadn't left for only a few days. "God damn it!" Ellison cursed again, slamming the side of his fist on the counter.

Closing his eyes, he forced himself to think. Sandburg had heard a friend was in trouble and needed help. How had he gotten the news? When? Not that morning while he was still at Rainier or downtown at the PD, or he'd've left this note at the office. His lips thinning, Jim recalled the busy signal when he'd first tried to reach Blair after lunch. Turning to the phone, the last caller ID showed his number at the PD. Picking up the phone, he dialed the telephone company, identifying himself by his name, rank and badge number and requesting a list of all calls made to his home number that day.

When he got the information, he scowled and raked his hand over his head. At least he had a city. Seattle. But who did Sandburg know who worked at, or was a patient at, the Seattle Mercy Hospital? The friend was hurt, so probably a patient, though no guarantees on that.

Still, it was a place to start.

Hauling on his jacket, he slammed out of the loft, heading back to his office downtown.

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

Jim put in a call to Mercy Hospital, requesting the names of all non-elective admissions in the last seventy-two hours. He conjured a tale about seeking a missing person, but didn't have the name because the individual might be using an alias. The administrator hummed and hawed, noting that it was all very irregular, but when Ellison simply remained silent, oppressively so, he was finally promised that he'd have a list faxed in twenty minutes. Thanking the official with careful courtesy, he hung up and drummed the tips of his fingers on the desk. 'In trouble' could mean a lot of things, not necessarily trauma requiring hospitalization, but he had no grounds to request a warrant to get the relevant information on all patients, let alone staff and medical personnel. If this lead didn't pan out, he didn't know what else he could do other than put an APB out on the Volvo. Seattle was a big town -- simply heading south and driving around hoping to spot Blair or his car would be an exercise in futility.

Simon wandered out of his office to drop a file on Taggart's desk and was obviously surprised when he turned and saw Ellison. Ambling over, he asked, "Didn't you go home?"

"Yeah," Jim grated, looking up, his eyes clouded with anxiety. "He's not there. He took off to help a friend in trouble. Left a note." Reaching to his shirt pocket, he pulled out the folded, rumpled piece of foolscap and handed it over.

Simon grimaced as he finished reading and handed the note back. "You think there really is a friend in need, or is that maybe just a convenient excuse to take off for a while?"

Ellison's lip twisted as he shrugged and shook his head. "I think he did hear from someone; he got a call from the Mercy Hospital in Seattle before he left." Looking away, he said tightly, "But there's no doubt that the timing is also convenient." Sighing, he added glumly, "I don't think he would've just taken off without reason. He doesn't go out of his way to avoid confrontation. Just the opposite, sometimes."

Nodding, Banks crossed his arms. "It's pretty clear he heard more than enough earlier, though."

"Yeah," Jim agreed with a stiff nod. "Yeah, it is." Clearing his throat, he went on, "I've asked for a list of non-elective admissions over the past seventy-two hours. Maybe that'll give me some idea of what's going on."

"Jim," Simon rumbled warningly.

"I know, I know," Ellison retorted, lifting his hands, palms out. "I don't have jurisdiction, he's old enough to come and go as he pleases, and he doesn't owe me any explanations. But ..."

"But you're worried about him," Banks allowed patiently. "Let me know if you find anything out."

"I will, sir," Jim confirmed. Once again meeting his friend's eyes, his stoic mask slipped a bit and he looked stricken as he murmured, "I didn't mean it. I never meant for him to hear any of that. I was ... I was just letting off steam."

Banks sighed and nodded, and then returned to his office.

A few minutes later, the fax machine beeped and started to clatter as it spitted out two sheets of single-line type, one after the other. Jim bounded to the machine, catching up the papers as they spilled out, hastily scanning name after name.

And then he stopped and straightened, a thoughtful frown on his face. No wonder Sandburg had dropped everything and ran when he was called. Blowing a long breath, Jim's shoulders relaxed. Now he had a lot more than a lead. The name was as good as a treasure map that would lead him straight to his partner.

His relief at having a lead didn't last long, however. Maybe there was nothing serious going on. Maybe it had just been an accident or something, but he recalled Blair's note that his friend was maybe in trouble. Regardless, if she was hurt badly and needed help, then Jim wanted to help, too. With a chill of apprehension, he felt a powerful sense of urgency to find out a lot more about what was going on. The last time Sandburg had gotten mixed up in that world, he'd been shot by an assassin and damned near killed.

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

Despite the weather, the highway was clear if not dry, and Sandburg made good time to Seattle. All the way south, he mulled over the little he'd been told on the phone and thought about the woman who had called for help: Janey Tarkington, his former skating coach and the person who'd helped him become whole again after he'd been crushed in the truck nearly two years ago. It had been unnerving to hear Janey, normally so solid, so strong, on the verge of tears and sounding so afraid. She'd only gotten out part of the story before her voice quit and it broke his heart to hear the stifled sniffles as she struggled for control. Janey was one of those people that others went to for help, who never seemed to need help herself. Fiercely independent, he knew it must have been damned hard for her to call, to admit that she didn't know what to do and was frightened.

What the hell was going on with that ice show? All he really knew for sure was that she'd been working with the Ice Follies as a choreographer and coach for the past few months, and something bad was going on; she evidently believed that someone had deliberately shoved or tripped her hard enough onto the ice the day before that she had a minor skull fracture and concussion. He cursed under his breath, furious that anyone would hurt someone as fine and decent as she was; would scare her so badly that her natural equilibrium and wry humour were lost.

Well, he'd just have to get some answers and, if someone had hurt her deliberately, get enough evidence to have whoever it was charged with assault. When he swept into Seattle on the multi-lane and perpetually packed Interstate, anxious to have more information to be prepared to some extent when he saw her, he decided to make one stop before going to the hospital.

Pulling into the arena's parking lot, he jogged to the main entrance, his collar up against the bitter chill of the wind off the water. Once inside, he made his way down and along the dreary, grungy back corridors, which were busy with technicians, trainers, choreographers, costume people, set designers and the talent who rushed past on their way to or from rehearsals. Voices shouting questions or directions were sharp, tense -- he heard no laughter and saw no smiles. Innumerable blades scraped across the rink with a sliding, cutting sound that echoed loudly in the cavernous building. The cold air rising from the ice and permeating the building felt thick with tension. Though he'd been torn between simply asking some straight questions and exercising a little subterfuge when he'd been packing, the atmosphere of palpable tension suggested a head-on approach really wouldn't garner anything useful, and he decided to go directly to his backup plan. After asking directions of a harried technician, he was pointed to an administration office deep in the bowels of the building.

Pushing open the glass door to the reception area, he took in the show's glossy advertising on the walls that badly needed fresh paint, and then focused at the sober young clerk at the counter. Behind her, the door to the interior office was half-open. "Hi," he said, forcing a bright smile. "I'm Blair Sandburg, and I wondered if there might be an opening in the cast."

Her smile in return was courteous, if a bit stiff and impersonal; she was about to hand him an application form when the door to the inner office was jerked all the way open and a tall, elegantly-dressed, middle-aged man quickly emerged. His platinum hair was professionally coiffed and his fingernails were gleaming, as if he'd just returned from the manicurist. "Sandburg?" he clarified, peering at Blair through gold-tinted glasses. "Blair Sandburg? The Blair Sandburg who was presented with the special gold medal two years ago at the World Championships in Cascade?"

"Well, yeah," Blair shrugged diffidently. "That would be me."

"Pleasure to meet you," the stranger replied, holding out his hand. "I'm Lyle Perkins, and I'm the producer of this year's show, 'Fairytale Follies'. Did I hear right? You're interested in joining the cast?"

"Yeah, I am," Sandburg as he shook the sweaty hand, and had to resist the temptation to scrub his palm against his jeans. "I've got a few months free and, well, I thought it would be fun to live some of what I've only ever dreamed of doing, you know? Could use some extra cash to pay down my student loans, too, to be honest. So, when I heard the show was in town, I thought I'd take a chance on coming in to apply, in case you might have an opening for a skater."

"Well, Blair -- I can call you, Blair, right?" Lyle swept on, his tones melodious and verging on confidential, "To tell you the truth, you couldn't have arrived at a better time. We start the show here in Seattle in two days and our leading male skater has gone missing. Probably just took off with his girlfriend, but he's sure left us in the lurch."

"Lead skater? Missing?" Sandburg interjected anxiously, his gut going hollow both because he'd thought if he got anything, it would be in the chorus, not up front and in the limelight, and because the idea of someone missing after what happened to Janey raised all kinds of warning flags. "Have you informed the police?"

"He's an adult, if an irresponsible one to have taken off without notice, so I doubt the police would feel there's cause for alarm." Perkins shrugged, waving off the concern, his gaze shifting away. "He hasn't shown up for rehearsals for the last two days and nobody knows where he is. Like I say, he's probably taken off with a new girlfriend and didn't bother to let anyone know. He might even think he can just turn up again to do the weekend shows before we move on to Cascade, but I can't take that chance. I've got a show to put on and I don't have time to wait around for him to call in, or simply hope he'll show up."

"So, I guess I'll be understudying the understudy, who'll go on instead, right?" Sandburg clarified, glancing at the woman behind the counter, who seemed to be avoiding involvement in the conversation, her attention on shuffling papers.

"Well, no," Perkins explained with a sigh. "The understudy had an accident last week and badly twisted his knee, so we've really been caught in a bind. I thought we might have to cancel the tour." Taking a breath, shrugging again, he straightened and carried on, "So, if you can work up the routines between now and Friday night's show -- you're hired."

"Oh, well, uh, I see. Is there a trainer I can work with?" Blair asked uncertainly, seriously wondering if he could possibly pull off the skating that would be required.

Lyle's lips tightened with regret. "I'm sorry, but the trainer who works with the principal skaters slipped on the ice late yesterday afternoon and suffered a concussion. But we've others who can help you, and all the routines are written up. So," he went on with a shark-like smile, opening his arms wide as if offering up the opportunity of a lifetime, "You came to the right place to live your dreams, Blair, if that's what you really want to do. You up for the challenge?"

Quirking his brows at the recent run of unfortunate incidents that had befallen the Follies, Blair swallowed hard. He'd hoped to get on the inside, and that's exactly what he was being offered but, man, it was more than he honestly felt ready to deliver. Still, he wasn't going to get a better chance to infiltrate the company, so he took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah, sure, I'm willing to do my best. If you can get me the binder on the routines, I'll study them tonight -- but I'll need a lot of ice time in the next two days."

"Whatever you need, you've got it," Lyle assured him enthusiastically, clapping him on the back. "You're the answer to our prayers, Blair. If you hadn't walked in the door, I was probably going to have to cancel the show."

"Well, guess it worked out for both of us then," Sandburg replied carefully, struck by the way Perkins' smile didn't reach his flat, cool eyes. And the man's enthusiasm seemed outright bizarre, particularly as he'd been hired without a tryout and for all this guy could know, he hadn't skated for years.

He was immediately given the materials he needed, assigned a locker, and told a room would be assigned to him at the hotel where the company was staying so that he could check in immediately. The head of wardrobe was called and he was measured quickly by the morose company tailor, to have the costumes altered. It all happened so fast that, within twenty minutes, he was on his way back to the Volvo.

After switching on the ignition, he sat in the car for a moment to let the engine warm up. Studying the arena, his eyes narrowed as he thought about the different games that might be in play. He'd only been on the ground for less than half an hour and he'd already learned that it was an unhappy company of skaters and support personnel, with an injured trainer, a sleazy producer/ promoter -- and one missing lead skater with an injured understudy. Either this ice show was operating under a shitload of bad karma, or there was something distinctly strange going on, though he didn't know what or why. As he slowly drove out of the lot and along the slippery streets to the Mercy Hospital, he told himself he was going to have to be very careful and sincerely hoped he hadn't bitten off more than he could chew.

He also wished he could call Jim, to talk about the situation and get some advice. But it wasn't his friend's jurisdiction and, right then, he had no inclination to be more bother and burden. No, he'd just have to do his best and try to figure it out on his own. Hell, he'd been working with one of the best detectives in the country for more than two years now; surely he'd learned enough to do a little snooping around.

He parked in the visitors' lot and, slipping unsteadily on the icy walk, hastened into the large hospital, built predominantly of red brick that looked grimy in the dull light. Stopping at the small shop run by the Ladies' Auxiliary, he bought a bright bouquet of fresh-cut flowers in a simple glass vase before heading up to the fifth floor. When he got to the room, he paused for a moment in the doorway, studying his friend quietly, noting the badly bruised cheek, the butterfly bandages across a narrow gash on her temple, the uncharacteristic pallor, and the lines of pain and worry etched around her eyes and mouth. Her lips were pressed together, and she was unconsciously twisting her fingers in the counterpane of the sheet covering her, betraying her deep anxiety. "Hey," he called softly as he entered, drawing her attention from the window across the room.

"Oh, Blair," she sighed, trying to smile but not quite making it as she held out a hand.

He placed the vase and flowers on the bedside table, and then gently took her hand as he bent to kiss her brow. "How're you doing, Janey?" he asked, concern in his eyes. "That bruise and the cut look like they hurt, and it probably feels like the whole Army is trooping through your head."

"It's better than it was," she replied, her voice sounding shaky, so unlike her usual warm and confident tones. "Thank you for coming. I ... I wasn't sure I should call, but I didn't know who else -"

"It's okay, I'm glad you called," he reassured her, and then drew up a chair. "Do you feel up to telling me more about what happened?"

She swallowed and nodded, her eyes glazing with tears that tore him up inside. Janey Tarkington didn't cry, except maybe when she was inordinately proud of someone's achievement or touched by something that made her really happy. But she never cried in anger or fear or hurt; those feelings she held tightly inside or let them wash away as unhealthy and unproductive. In all the years he'd known her, he'd never seen her look so upset -- scared even. Janey was a rock that others clung to, not someone who fell apart or sought help easily. Leaning forward, he cradled her hand in his own, and waited for her to compose herself enough to speak.

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

"Find out anything?" Simon asked. He been watching Ellison make a number of phone calls and when his lead detective started to stare into space, his expression troubled, he left his office to see what was going on.

"Uh, yeah, maybe," Jim replied, a frown furrowing his brow. Scratching his cheek, he paused and then gathered up the notes he'd made. "Let's talk in your office," he suggested.

Back behind his desk, Banks poured them both a coffee and then leaned back to listen. Jim hitched a hip onto the conference table and scanned his notes before setting them aside. Looking up to meet Simon's gaze, he asked, "You remember Janey Tarkington?"

The Captain nodded. "She's the trainer that worked with Blair, right? Getting him back on skates to get his body coordinated again after being bed-bound so long? The one he worked with when he was a kid? Small woman but feisty, determined."

"Yeah, that's Janey," Jim replied, a slight smile tweaking the corner of his mouth as he remembered her. But the smile faded and he sobered. "She was hurt early yesterday afternoon -- cracked her head on the ice and is in Mercy Hospital in Seattle, with a minor skull fracture and concussion. Sounds like she'll be okay, but they're keeping her in for another day or so."

Quirking a brow, Banks sighed. "I'm sorry to hear she was hurt. And I guess I can understand why Sandburg would drop everything to go and make sure she's okay. But," he paused, then added, "that doesn't tell us why he wrote that he might be gone for weeks."

"No, well, I think there's more to it," Ellison replied tightly. "It might not have been a simple accident. She's currently working with one of those Ice Capades kind of operations, this one called the Ice Follies -- it's one of those big extravaganza shows with fancy costumes, trick lighting, huge cast of skaters that make the rounds every year in the fall, and over the winter holidays. She joined the company about six months ago, to provide coaching to the lead skaters and to help choreograph this year's routines. Anyway," he paused to take a sip of coffee, "I found out from a contact I know down there that this particular company seems to be having a run of exceedingly bad luck. In the last three months, a number of skaters have suffered accidents, one being badly burned when the wires of the lights they were wearing on their costume shorted out, several have suffered broken bones or sprains, and there's a rumour that a lead skater has taken off or disappeared in the last two days. As for Janey, she was out on the ice during a rehearsal of the big finale number when someone crashed into her from behind and knocked her flat."

"That's a lot of bad luck," Simon observed dryly, frowning.

"Too much to be just bad luck," Ellison returned, grimacing unhappily as he shrugged and continued. "But whether it's bad management, sloppy technicians, poor equipment, inept skaters -- or something more insidious -- well, who knows at this point?"

Sighing, Simon scratched his cheek, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully as he looked out the window. "You think Sandburg is going to try to find out what's going on," he mused, his gaze returning to Jim's.

Nodding, Ellison crossed his arms and studied the floor. "I know it's not our jurisdiction, but Janey's a friend of mine, too," he ventured. "And Sandburg might be getting into something he can't handle on his own."

"He might not thank you for barging in," Banks cautioned. "Might just see it as another indication that you don't think he can handle himself."

"I know that," Jim grated irritably.

"And the Seattle PD might not appreciate you poking around on their turf," Simon went on.

"I know that, too," he snapped, then rolled his shoulders to alleviate some of the tension he felt. "But I still think I should go check things out," he said with less asperity, looking up to meet Banks' steady gaze. "At least see how Janey is doing -- no one can take offence if I go to visit a friend in the hospital, right?"

"Ri-ight," Simon drawled, but his lips thinned. "I can't afford to give you a lot of time off right now," he temporized. "You know this is the busiest time of the year."

"The Lazar reports are finished, and I don't have anything else on my plate right now," Jim countered. "Just a couple of days, Simon, that's all I'm asking for. Just time to check things out and make sure the kid's desire to help doesn't lead him into hot water, that's all. And, well, it would give me a chance to clear the air with him."

"Okay," Banks capitulated. When Jim slid off the table and started toward the door, he added, "Keep me posted -- and if it looks like this is something for the Seattle Police, make sure you get them involved and don't try to deal with it on your own."

"No problem," Jim affirmed with a grim expression and firm nod. "We got enough work here without trying to do theirs, too. I'll just make sure Janey is okay and hopefully get my partner back where he belongs."

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

Janey sniffed and her free hand twisted the sheet and blanket. "I'm sorry," she said, clearing her throat. "I don't usually get so upset."

"You're allowed," Blair reassured her. "Look, if you don't feel like talking right now, that's okay."

"No, no, I need to talk to someone who isn't involved. Someone I trust to be sensible and not jump to conclusions -- and who might have ideas on what I should do," she replied more steadily. "That's why I called you. I trust you." Sniffing again, she took a breath. "I think something illegal is going on. Maybe a lot of illegal things and I'm scared. Not for myself," she hastened to add, squeezing his hand urgently, "but for Tommy." Her voice cracked on the name and her lips trembled.

"Tommy?" Blair echoed, blinking with confusion, rapidly putting the pieces together in his head. "You don't mean little Tommy, your nephew? The kid who used to follow you everywhere and could skate better than the rest of us by the time he was six? What's he got to do with this? Oh no, don't tell me he's the skater that's missing?"

Janey nodded tightly. "You probably don't know, but when my older sister and her husband were killed in an accident, I adopted Tommy. He was eleven at the time. He, uh, he decided to turn professional this year, and he asked me if I'd also join the Ice Follies for this season of shows, just to ... to help him make the transition."

"I heard Tommy hasn't been around the last couple of days," he said with sober solemnity, understanding now why Janey was so upset, probably understanding a whole lot more than she realized.

As a kid, Tommy had been a miniature replica of her, but he didn't look a thing like either of his parents, whom Blair had gotten to know years before when he and Janey had worked together so closely. He'd often seen the way his coach treated the child, how she looked at the kid when she thought nobody was noticing -- it was the same way his mother looked with a kind of joyful wonder at him. He still might not have put it together -- after all, nephews can look like their aunts, have the same genetic heritage -- if he hadn't also heard some neighbours talking at Janey's father's funeral just before they'd left on the eventful trip to Sweden. Neighbours of her parents, people he didn't know, had been looking at Janey and her sister and reminiscing about how Janey had been adopted at the age of four when her parents had been killed in explosion in the foundry where they worked. A lot of kids had been orphaned at the time, apparently, and the other townspeople had taken them in, making them part of their own families. He'd shrugged off the knowledge at the time, not one inclined to judge given that he was illegitimate, and had just been happy that his beloved coach had found a way to keep her son close.

Now, that son was legally hers again -- and was missing. Maybe worse, he thought morosely, feeling sick but taking care to keep his thoughts off his face.

"I'm a-afraid s-something has h-happened to him," she stammered, overwrought and clearly fighting to control her emotions. Taking a breath to steady herself, looking up at Sandburg, she insisted, "He's a good kid, Blair. He wouldn't just not show up, not call, not when he knows people are counting on him." Pausing, thinking about how he'd known a skater was missing, she frowned. "How did you hear this? I didn't think Perkins was going to report it, and when I called the police, they said they wouldn't even take the details until at least forty-eight hours had passed."

"I went to the arena before I came here," Sandburg replied slowly. "Heard a few things. Noticed that it doesn't look like a happy group."

"It's not," she affirmed heavily. Sighing, she shook her head and raked her fingers through her short, salt and pepper hair. "Morale has been bad for the last few months. So many 'accidents'. And Perkins is a jerk -- keeps saying the show isn't breaking even, even though we've been playing to packed arenas all along the west coast. He keeps threatening to cancel the show, so it lurches along, people tense and worried, some starting to feel scared, either about losing their jobs or about getting hurt. Equipment has been faulty, skates have had damaged blades that have resulted in spills. Little things, mostly, sprains, a broken arm -- except for the one kid who got burned pretty badly and Tommy's disappearance."

"And your concussion," Blair added tightly. "How'd you get hurt?"

She shrugged and shook her head. "Someone banged into me from behind, tripped me, when I was on the ice yesterday. Nobody really saw what happened because there was a lot of action going on, everyone moving as we rehearsed the act, and nobody admits being the one who slammed into me. Might have been an accident -- but I'd had a run-in with Perkins about an hour before, telling him in no uncertain terms that I thought something had happened to Tommy and I was going to find out what."

"What do you think happened to him?" he asked, his voice low with concern.

Tears filled her eyes and she shook her head. "I don't know," she rasped brokenly. Looking away, lifting a hand to cover her trembling lips, she fought for control. Blair handed her a tissue and she swiped at her eyes.

"When was the last time you, or anyone you know, saw him?" Sandburg probed, trying to keep her focused on facts and distract her from her evident fear for the missing man's wellbeing.

"Two days ago, at the arena," Janey recounted, frowning in memory. "It was after rehearsals finished for the day and the others had changed and gone. We were talking in the locker room, both of us speculating about what was going on. Tommy said he had some ideas that he wanted to think about, but he wouldn't say what they were. The place seemed empty when we walked out -- it was after six, dark already. He dropped me at the hotel where the cast and crew are staying and he said he'd either call me later or we'd talk the next day, and he drove away. Nobody has seen him since."

Blair thought about that. "So he definitely wasn't planning on taking off," he mused, looking away, thinking it wasn't sounding at all good. Two days was a long time to be missing.

"No, he wasn't, and that's why I'm so worried, but Perkins just keeps trying to downplay it," she stated forcefully. "God, I loathe that man. Gives me the creeps."

"Yeah, he's got kind of a sleazy manner," Sandburg agreed, his upper lip curling with distaste. Taking a breath, he straightened and said, "It sounds to me like we've got two major issues here. First and foremost, we need to find Tommy, and I really think we need the police to help with that. I'll ...." He hesitated to swallow his pride and his own need for avoidance and then continued swiftly, "I'll call Jim. He may have a contact in Seattle, someone who'll take this seriously and get involved right away. In fact, if you don't mind me using the phone," he nodded toward the telephone on the bedside table, "I'll call him right now."

When she urged him to go ahead, he tried the office first and then the loft, but got no answer at either number. Wondering if Jim had been assigned another case, worrying uncomfortably about that but pushing his own anxieties aside, he decided not to try Ellison's cell number in case he interrupted something important. Instead, he just left messages at the office and loft numbers with the salient details, his voice carefully modulated to hide his uncertainties about their relationship, asking if Jim knew of anyone in Seattle who could help, and saying he'd call back later to find out. Seeing the anxious disappointment in Janey's eyes as he hung up the phone, he said matter-of-factly, "He'll get one or the other message, and you know he'll do everything he can to help as soon as he does." When she nodded, to distract her, he went on briskly, "Okay, well, the other thing we have to do is to find out what's going on with the show, because that seems to be at the heart of everything." Looking away, he added almost diffidently, knowing she wasn't going to be happy with what he'd done, "I got a job there this afternoon, so I'll be able to snoop around from the inside."

"You what?" she snapped, her eyes flashing with sudden animation. "Oh, no, you don't. It's too dangerous. We don't know what's going on, but it's not good."

"Too late," he replied with a shrug, and gave her a sideways grin. "I'm in and I might as well find out what I can while I'm there." Sobering, he went on swiftly, to forestall further objections, "Even if Perkins, or whoever is behind the accidents and Tommy's disappearance figures out we have a history, there's no reason for them to think we've seen each other in years, or that we have any kind of connection. So far as anyone there needs to know, I'm just a skater who once had possibilities and who'd like to follow a dream before he's too old."

"You got a job as a skater?" she demanded, her eyes widening.

He nodded, chagrined by her very apparent astonishment. "I'm Tommy's replacement," he admitted finally with a sigh.

"But you're not in shape for that," she protested. "Blair, sweetie, you're good. God, you were great. But it's been years since you've done anything that strenuous. And if ... if whatever is going on is about disabling key performers, you've set yourself up as a target. No," she said categorically. "No, you can't do this."

"Janey," he contested gently, taking her hand again. "I'm not fifteen anymore. You can't make those decisions for me now. Some bastard has hurt you and maybe hurt your son. I'm going to do everything I can to find out who's done this and make him pay for it. That's just the way it is."

Her gaze dropped away at his reference to Tommy, and she sat pale and rigid, her lips thin with fear and frustration. When she didn't say anything, he went on cajolingly, "So, you gonna help me, Coach? Keep me from making a perfect fool of myself? Give me some tips on the routines?"

She closed her eyes and shook her head, but the starch went out of her shoulders. "You're really going to do this, aren't you?" she asked, her voice low, filled with regret.

"Yeah, Janey, I am," he asserted calmly. When she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, he quirked a winsome smile, cocked a brow and ducked his head to gaze up at her soulfully through his unruly curls and long lashes. "So -- will you help me?" he appealed wistfully.

Well recognizing the plaintive look from days long past, she couldn't resist a tired smile. "You are such a brat, Blair Sandburg," she complained with wry forbearance. "You haven't changed a bit, you know that? You're still pushing the envelope, and still trying to charm your way into getting what you want."

"Yeah, well, why change a winning strategy?" he teased impishly. "C'mon. You know you won't let me screw this up. I have to look like I have some clue when I get out on the ice tomorrow."

"Have you done any skating since I was in Cascade eighteen months ago?" she demanded. "Because, if you haven't -"

"Minimum twice a week, Coach," he cut in smartly. "Well, in the winter, anyway," he added, more truthfully. "It's good exercise and you know I always loved to skate -- it was like a miracle to be able to do it again and, well, I didn't want to stop."

"They give you the binder?" she asked grudgingly.

"It's in the car."

Sighing, she nodded, if still reluctantly. "All right, hotshot. Go get it and we'll walk through the routines."

Leaping to his feet, he swooped over her to lightly kiss her brow. "I knew I could count on you!" he exclaimed, as if this really was a dream he hoped to fulfill and not a perilous undertaking on her behalf.

But she caught his arm before he could turn away, holding him firmly and fighting back tears as she said, her voice cracking, "Thank you."

Covering her hand with his own, his gaze softened. "I'll call Jim again from the hotel when I check in. We'll find him, Janey, and we'll find out what's going on," he said gently.

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

As he'd missed lunch and it was getting close to dinner-time, Blair picked up a sandwich, an apple, and a carton of milk in the cafeteria on his way back from the car, and he munched companionably while she picked at the bland food on her tray. During the m eal, she described the overall show to him, the huge production numbers interspersed with single skaters or doubles, enacting a variety of fairytale scenarios. His appetite, not great to begin with, disappeared altogether as he came to understand how very much time he was going to be on the ice, and how many fast costume changes he was going to have to make. It sounded exhausting -- and the routines sounded like they'd push his rusty skills to the limit and probably well beyond.

Giving up on their respective dinners as a waste of time, they turned their attention to binder, to go over the choreography details for each act. She talked and he listened as he studied the graphics, nodding, concentrating hard on visualizing what he would have to do, on remembering the feel of doing it. Janey briefed him on when to skate hard and fast to build momentum and sweep around the rink, when to slow, stop dramatically, moving with the music under the spotlights, occasionally humming or singing bits of the songs softly, to give him a sense of the rhythm and pace of each act. The production numbers were going to be very tricky -- so many skaters on the ice, everyone moving fast in complex patterns. He'd be lucky if he didn't create complete chaos by missing a maneuver, or performing some part either too fast or too slow. About the only good thing about any of it was that taking him through the details was distracting her from worrying about Tommy. Man, he only had two days to whip himself into shape -- and then he'd have to go straight into Friday night's performance! He'd be lucky if he could move by then, let alone skate. His muscles were going to make him pay dearly in the next few days and he was going to have to be very careful to keep himself as limber as possible, to not pull or wrench something by tightening up.

And there'd be no time for any kind of covert investigation at least until the company packed up on Monday to move to Cascade, for the five shows there later in the next week.

They were so focused on their discussion that they didn't realize they were no longer alone until a soft rap on the open door caused them both to look up sharply. Janey smiled when she saw Jim Ellison standing in the doorway, looking concerned and almost shy, holding a small plant of blooming violets in one hand. Blair paled in startled surprise and he simply gaped for a moment before his gaze fell away and he shifted uncomfortably.

"Jim!" she welcomed him. "I didn't expect you to come down here, too."

"Hey," he replied, his tone warm, "when I heard you were hurt, well, I left as soon as I could finish up at the office. I'm just sorry I couldn't be here sooner." Moving into the room, he placed the plant beside the flowers Blair had brought and bent over her to kiss her cheek. Straightening, placing a light hand on her shoulder, he observed, "I'm glad to see you look like you're going to be okay. But, uh, Blair said there might be some kind of trouble?"

"Didn't you get my phone message with more details before you left?" Sandburg asked, his voice tight, his gaze not quite meeting Jim's.

"Message? No," the detective replied, very conscious that Janey's unconscious smile was gone, and her eyes were haunted with dark anxiety -- and that his partner was avoiding eye contact. "What's going on?"

"Janey has been working with the Ice Follies for about six months," Blair summarized, his tone controlled to low neutrality. "The company has been plagued by a series of increasingly serious 'accidents' and two days ago, before she was hurt -- we think deliberately -- the principal male skater in the ensemble disappeared." Flicking a look at Jim, he clarified, "Tommy, the skater? He's Janey's son."

Ellison's expression flattened and his posture stiffened. "Any ideas about what's behind these so-called accidents and your son's disappearance?" he asked briskly.

She shook her head. "No more than speculation. It could be someone inside, trying to sabotage the show, for any number of possible reasons; could be an unhappy employee wanting some kind revenge for some reason, or maybe insurance fraud." Looking up at Jim, she explained, "If the show gets shut down because of accident or injury, then insurance pays what the probable take for the season would have been. But I have no idea why Perkins, the producer, would want to shut down the show -- even though I've got a gut feeling that he's behind it all."

Frowning, he urged, "Tell me what you know about Tommy's disappearance."

After she had related the same details she'd given Blair, he probed, "You say he wanted to do some thinking before he drove away? Was there anywhere local, a place he liked to go, for some quiet, where he wouldn't be interrupted or disturbed?"

Janey's gaze drifted to the window as she thought about that. "There's a lookout above the city that he liked. When he was a kid, we used to go there whenever we were in Seattle, to see the channel and the islands during the day and the city lights at night. Whalers' Point, it's called. Other than that, no, I have no idea where he might have gone. Or if someone ... someone took him, is holding him somewhere, for some reason."

Jim's lips thinned and his gaze dropped. "If he was kidnapped for ransom, whether money or something else, you or the show's management would have probably heard by now," he told her as gently as he could. "Has anyone gone up to the point, to see if he got there? What color and model of car was he driving?"

"A black Sunbird. I'm sorry, I don't remember the license. It was a new model -- rented. When I realized he'd never come back to the hotel the night before, I drove up yesterday morning, but I didn't see any sign of him," she reported, her voice hollow. "You think he's ... he's probably ... probably ...."

"I'm not thinking anything yet," Ellison cut in reassuringly. "Just trying to figure out possibilities. Did you notify the police?"

"They told her that until he was missing for forty-eight hours, they couldn't do anything," Blair said quietly, understanding the procedure but still thinking it was stupid. "Do you know anyone on the Force here who might be able to help?" he asked, still not looking directly at his friend.

"Yeah, I know some people," Jim affirmed. "But I think I'll also look around a bit myself. Do you, uh, want to come with me?" he added, his tone oddly diffident as he turned his attention to his partner.

Hesitating, Blair looked at the binder on Janey's lap, but she closed it and handed it to him. "We've gone through it all once," she said firmly. "You can go over it again tonight and then just do your best tomorrow. The main thing to remember is to stay loose -- if you tighten up from nerves, you'll hurt yourself. Please, Blair, if you can help, go with Jim. Please try to find him."

Standing, shrugging into his jacket, he vowed, "We'll do our best, Janey." Taking the binder, he tenderly kissed her cheek and then hesitated, waiting for Jim to lead the way out.

"We'll call you later," Ellison assured her, with a puzzled frown at the binder in Blair's hand. "What's this, about tomorrow?" he asked, turning toward the door.

"I'll, uh, explain while we're looking, okay?" Sandburg replied, his eyes downcast as he waved Jim out ahead of him, anxious to forestall any conversation between them until they'd left Janey, not wanting her to have anything more to worry about.

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

Once in the hallway, Jim shortened his stride and slowed, to allow Blair to walk beside him rather than a step behind, but Blair only then moved a little ahead, leading the way to the elevator. When Ellison reached out to lightly grip his arm, Sandburg flinched away and held up his hands.

"I know you have some things to say to me, man," he murmured, his voice low and hoarse, his gaze averted, "but I think for now we should just concentrate on helping Janey, okay? Whatever you need to say can be said when this is done."

"Chief, why didn't you join Simon and me for lunch? I left you a note on where to find us."

Turning away, Blair punched the elevator button and studied the floor light indicators above the closed double doors. "I was late getting away from Rainier, and then got stuck in traffic. I ... I was just late."

"Rafe and Brown told us they saw you arrive less than a minute after we'd left," Jim pushed. "They said you were racing to catch up with us. What made you stop?"

The elevator doors opened and Blair moved into the crowded box, Jim sliding in beside them, both now silent, along with everyone else who simply watched the floor indicators and waited to escape. On the ground floor, not wanting to answer Jim's question, Sandburg hurried ahead toward the exit. "My car or your truck?" he asked over his shoulder. "It's going to be dark on the drive to the lookout, so it might be easier for you to just watch for any sign of Tommy."

"Your car," Jim decided, a troubled expression on his face. On the way across the parking lot, he asked unhappily, "How much did you hear in the stairwell, Chief?"

Blair's determined stride hitched briefly and then resumed more slowly, but he wouldn't look at his friend. "Okay, okay," he allowed, sounding hunted. "I heard enough, more than enough. But I really don't want to talk about it now. It's too ... distracting. We need to focus on Tommy and Janey."

"Sandburg, I don't think you understand -" Ellison tried, vastly uncomfortable and feeling unpleasantly guilty.

"I understand just fine, Jim," he cut in sharply, as he unlocked the car door and then moved around the back to the driver's side. "Dammit, let it go. I'm not up for this right now, okay?"

"No, I won't let it go," Ellison snapped as he slid into the car. When Blair slammed his door shut and switched on the ignition, Jim grabbed his shoulder. "Whatever you heard, I didn't mean it. I was sounding off, that's all. You weren't supposed to hear any of that."

"Yeah, I figured that out for myself," Sandburg grated, his jaw tight, as he drove out of the lot. "And you meant it, man. I could hear it in your voice. You weren't just grousing about how I won't stay in the truck, or that I talk your ear off, or that you're sick of all the tests. You were calling it quits for some very ...." he throat thickened and he had to swallow. His voice was thin with strain when he continued, "Very substantial reasons. And, yes, we will talk about it, when I can think straight and I'm not worried sick about Janey and Tommy, okay? So, so just give me a break, Jim. Don't make me go over it all right now." Taking a breath, he redirected the conversation before Ellison could keep harping on what had happened earlier that day. "So, how'd you find out so fast? And why'd you come down here?"

Looking away, his hand falling from Blair's shoulder, Jim said flatly, "She's my friend, too. You should have told me she was in trouble. You had to know I'd help."

"I didn't know how bad things were until I got here," Sandburg sighed, his focus on the traffic and watching for his turnoff. "That's why I called you. I knew I couldn't handle it all on my own. You still didn't say how you found me so fast."

"Checked the loft's phone record, got the hospital to give me the names of non-elective admissions in the past seventy-two hours," Jim grunted, looking out the side window, pissed off that Blair wouldn't let him just explain and be done with it. "I checked for skating events in the area, found out about the Follies and gathered some of the information the two of you just told me. Sounds like something decidedly criminal is going on."

Blair nodded, his expression grim. "You decided to come before you got my call. Guess that's 'cause you figured I'd just screw stuff up, right? That I couldn't help Janey on my own."

"Being here isn't a commentary on your competence, Sandburg. I want to help," Jim grated. "And I want to talk to you, when you're ready to hear what I have to say. That's it. End of story." Shifting restlessly, he said more mildly, "I didn't know Janey had a son."

"She adopted Tommy when her older sister and her husband were killed in an accident, years ago," Blair supplied distantly, not inviting more conversation.

They'd been gradually driving out of the city, leaving the brighter lights behind. Uneasy silence fell between them for the next five minutes, and then Sandburg turned onto a road that climbed steeply around tight curves. On the left, across the two lane roadway, there was a guardrail on the edge of a steep, nearly sheer dropoff and on the right were tall shrubs backed by a thick pine forest. The pavement was slick in places, and the only illumination was the bright beams of the Volvo's headlights splitting the darkness.

"If he went off over the edge, there'd be a break in the guardrail," Blair murmured with a frown. "Somebody would have noticed by now. So if he made it this far, if he came this way at all, he had to have gone off on your side."

"Uh huh," Jim grunted, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the road ahead and the bushy verge, his vision wide open. When the headlights from an approaching vehicle swung around the curve ahead, he flinched, a hand quickly covering his momentarily blinded eyes.

Immediately, Blair slowed to a virtual stop and reached out reflexively to ground his friend. "You turning down the dial?" he asked, his voice low. "Just till you can see okay again."

Nodding tightly, his jaw clenched, Ellison focused on getting his sight back under control. Sighing, he nodded. "Okay, you can keep going," he muttered, squinting into the darkness.

"You think we'll find him out here?" Sandburg asked anxiously. "I mean, he could be anywhere."

"If he was moving under his own stream, he's probably somewhere near here," Jim replied distantly, his concentration on the road. "People are creatures of habit. If they have certain rituals, like going to a specific place to be alone to think, they'll usually always head to that place when they want to think."

Three minutes later, he suddenly reached out to grip Blair's arm. "Slow ... stop!"

Sandburg hit the breaks and eased just off the road onto the narrow shoulder. "You see something?" he asked hopefully.

"Maybe," Jim muttered, getting out of the car. He strode forward a few steps, then hunkered down to study the greasy pavement. When Blair came up beside him, he pointed. "Skid marks." Shifting his gaze to the shrubbery, he frowned and then straightened to move closer. "Faint tire tracks skidding over the gravel into the bushes. Some broken branches here, but the plants bounced back up, hiding where somebody went off the road."

"I've got a flashlight in the glove compartment," Blair called, already jogging back to the car, returning a moment later. Conscious of not mucking up what might be a crime scene, he handed the light to Ellison and stayed a step behind, one hand lightly resting on Jim's back.

Cautiously, Jim pushed the shrubbery aside to move through and past, but he quickly pulled up. "Pretty steep ditch here," he muttered. He sniffed, frowned in alarm and swept the light forward along the ditch, freezing the beam when they both saw a battered, black car lying tilted half on its side, the hood crunched and resting against the thick trunk of a tall pine.

"Oh my God!" Blair gasped. "Is ... is there anyone alive."

"I've got a faint heartbeat, Chief," Jim replied, pulling out his cellphone. "Call 911 while I check more closely."

Punching in the numbers and then speaking to the operator, Blair followed in Ellison's wake, both of them sliding carefully into the hidden gully. "One victim, young male," Jim called over his shoulder as he peered in through the windows. He tried the door, but it was jammed. When he shone the light inside, Blair's throat tightened.

"I think it's Tommy," he said uncertainly, "though with all the blood on his face, it's hard to tell. Right age, though. Right color hair."

"Looks like his legs are caught under the crushed dash -- that'll be why he couldn't get himself out, especially with this door stuck and the other one blocked," Jim muttered, frustrated to be so close and not able to help. "How long before help gets here?"

"They said ten minutes," Sandburg muttered. "Look, I've got blankets in the trunk -- maybe you could layer them over him through the shattered windshield."

"Good thinking, Junior," Jim agreed and Blair took off running, scrambling up the slope back through the screen of bushes to the road. When Sandburg returned, he was also carrying his tire iron. While Ellison gingerly climbed up onto the hood to ease the blankets inside over the unconscious man, Blair started working on the door, trying to lever it open. Rejoining him on the ground, lending his strength to the effort as well, they managed to force an opening, enough for Jim to reach inside to begin inventorying injuries while Blair held the flashlight.

"Hey, Tommy?" Jim cajoled softly, calmly, his nose wrinkling against the stench of old blood, urine and excrement as he lightly touched the kid's face, head, neck, chest and abdomen. "Is that your name? Can you hear me?" When he scrunched lower, to check the legs for broken bones, the kid moaned softly.

"Thirsy," the guy slurred.

"I've got some water in the car," Blair offered softly.

But Jim shook his head. "Can't let him drink anything until he's checked for internal injuries." Raising his voice, he called again, "Tommy? Is that your name?"

The kid mumbled something even Jim couldn't catch. "He's disoriented, only semi-conscious," he observed thinly.

"Good thing the nights haven't been freezing cold this week," Sandburg sighed, raking fingers through his hair.

"Yeah," Jim agreed, both of them knowing that, having survived the accident, the victim was lucky not to have died of exposure. If this was Tommy, and he'd been stuck there for two days, he was damned lucky to still be alive. Cocking his head, Ellison muttered, "I hear sirens."

"Okay, I'll go up to the road to flag them down," Blair offered. He turned away, then paused, looking back over his shoulder, meeting Jim's gaze for the first time. "Thanks, man -- nobody else could've found him in time. Thanks for coming as quickly as you did."

And then he was gone, disappearing into the dark shadows beyond the beam of the flashlight.

Jim scrubbed a hand over his mouth and looked back into the vehicle. Finding the kid alive was one thing -- but it was too soon to tell if he was going to survive. Unable to do more for the victim without the right equipment, Ellison concentrated on the car, noting the bashed in side panels. Looking back up toward the road, he didn't see anything that would account for that kind of damage on the driver's side of the vehicle. Swallowing, his expression grim, he focused in more tightly, looking for traces of paint from the car or truck that had forced this kid off the road.

Because it sure as hell hadn't been an accident.

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

They split up when they got back to the hospital. Jim headed toward Emergency to learn what he could, however he could, about the young man's condition, and to touch base with the patrolman who had followed the ambulance in. Blair hurried back upstairs, stopping first at the nurses' desk to alert them that they needed to get Janey's doctor's permission for her to be taken by wheelchair down to Emergency, to hopefully identify her son, who'd been in an accident. And then he loped along the corridor, slowing when he neared his Coach's room. When he walked in, she looked up at him, hope and dread mingled in her eyes.

"We think we found him," Blair told her calmly, as he hastened to take her hand. "He's hurt and down in Emergency, being taken care of. He was in a car accident. Jim, uh, spotted where he went off the road, and we found the Sunbird in a low gully, out of sight of anyone driving by. We're going to need you to identify him because he's unconscious right now."

Tears spangled in her eyes, one spilling onto her cheek. "Alive?" she whispered raspily, afraid to believe what she'd heard.

"Alive," Blair confirmed with a small smile. "But we don't know yet how badly hurt he is, and he was in that ditch a long time."

Janey swallowed heavily and looked away, aghast. "I drove right past him," she said tremulously.

"Listen to me," Sandburg urged, gently turning her face back to him. "You couldn't have known he was there. Only ... only someone with Jim's skills could have spotted the skid marks and checked. Janey, please. There's no way on this earth that you could have seen where his car went off the road."

She pushed off the blankets and sheets, twisting to sit on the side of the bed. "I have to see him," she stated urgently.

"In a few minutes," Blair soothed, keeping his hands on her shoulders, not allowing her to stand. "The nurses are going to bring a wheelchair for you -- we can't have you getting dizzy, falling over and cracking your head again, okay? And they'll need a bit of time downstairs to clean him up a little, and to examine him to see how badly he's hurt."

When she pushed against him, struggling to stand, wanting, needing so badly to go to her son, he wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug. "Easy, easy, Coach. Take a few breaths. We're going to take you to him. It's okay, Janey. It's okay. We found him."

Suddenly, she was clinging to him, sobbing brokenly, the walls of her tenuous control demolished by overwhelming relief. And he held her, comforting her, while she wept.

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

Jim stood to meet them when Blair pushed Janey's chair into the Emergency waiting lounge. "Anything?" Sandburg asked, his brows quirking as he discreetly pulled on an earlobe and tilted his head toward the back hallway, where the treatment rooms were.

"Uh, I think he's okay," Ellison replied hopefully, lowering his gaze to Janey. "No one has come out yet, but his injuries seemed mostly superficial when they got him out of the car. He, uh, he banged his head though, so may have a concussion and he's still unconscious. He'll be suffering from exposure."

Pale, her eyes dark and large in her face, her hands trembling, she nodded mutely. Janey glanced toward the closed doors, wondering what was going on, how her son really was. Biting on her lip, she looked back over her shoulder and lightly clasped Blair's arm, drawing him around until he was standing beside Jim. "Whatever happens," she said, looking from one to the other, "thank you for finding him. Because of you, the two of you, Tommy might ... Tommy has a chance now. I don't know how I'll ever repay you for that."

Jim dipped his head briefly and lifted an arm to loop around Sandburg's shoulder. The kid flinched, but at least he didn't pull away. With a smile on the corner of his lips, Jim replied with tones laden with emotional meaning, "You don't owe us a thing. Friends help one another. Like you helped us not so long ago."

Blair nodded, his head bowed and his hair a curtain that hid his expression. He had to swallow the lump that had arisen at the mention of that time when the future seemed so bright, when he'd been so certain that Jim would always be there for him and that he'd be there for Jim. How had they lost that? When had things changed? Slipping away from Jim's touch, unable to bear reminders of what had been and now was gone, forcing away his personal hurts and preoccupations, he hunkered down in front of Janey. "You doing okay? You need anything?" he asked solicitously.

"I just need someone to tell me how he is, that he'll be alright," she murmured, but summoned a wan smile. "Don't worry about me, Blair. I'm fine." When Sandburg patted her arm and then stood, moving to stand beside her, away from Jim's side, her gaze flickered from him to Ellison, and a small frown creased her brow at the way Jim was watching Blair with worried frustration. Glancing back at the younger man, one she knew as well as her own son, she noticed the taut tension of his body and the way he carefully looked everywhere but at his friend. Sighing, thinking she knew why they seemed at odds, she began, "I guess you've told Jim what you -"

But Sandburg interjected quickly, "Uh, no, actually. It's okay. Don't -"

"Told me what?" Ellison cut in, frowning.

"Blair's taken -"

"Janey," Sandburg intervened sharply, "don't worry about that now, okay? Right now, what's important is that Tommy be all right. The rest can wait."

"If you haven't told him, then what's going on between you two?" she demanded, confused. "I can see something's wrong."

Ellison glanced uncomfortably at Sandburg and, shoving his hands in his pockets, shrugged, hesitating to reveal the conflict between them, worrying that it might just make things worse.

Blair looked away and swallowed. Before he could decide what to say, a woman in a lab coat, a stethoscope hooked around her neck, came through the closed doors to the treatment rooms. She looked around and then approached Jim. "Are you the man, Jim Ellison, who came in with the John Doe?"

"Yeah, that's me," he replied. Gesturing toward Janey, he went on, "We think the accident victim is Tommy Tarkington, and this is his mother, Jane. Can she see him now?"

Turning her attention to Janey, the woman said, "I'm Dr. Worth. Let's see if this young man is your son, and then we can talk about what happens next."

Blair again pushed Janey's chair while Jim walked ahead, to hold the door open for all of them, and then followed along. Dr. Worth led them to a treatment room and, when they entered, Janey's eyes filled with tears. "It's Tommy," she whispered brokenly, gazing at her unconscious son. His face showed a number of superficial abrasions and scrapes, and his skin was very pale. Looking up at the doctor, she demanded tremulously, "How is he?"

"Lucky," the doctor replied dryly. "The cuts are superficial and should heal without scarring. He has a moderately severe concussion but isn't deeply unconscious and should rouse in the next few hours. A couple of cracked ribs and a broken arm. Other than that, he's suffering from shock and exposure to the cold and damp. Mostly? He's exhausted. But I think he'll be fine."

"Doctor, there's some evidence to suggest his car might have been forced off the road," Ellison said soberly. "The local police want to be informed as soon as he wakes up, to see what he remembers about what happened."

Janey's gaze flashed up at that. "Someone tried to kill him?" she demanded angrily. "This wasn't just an accident?"

"Might have been a joy-rider or a drunk," Jim replied calmly. "We won't really know until Tommy tells us what happened."

"He might not remember," Dr. Worth told them. "Head injuries can be tricky and short term memory loss of events immediately prior to the trauma is not uncommon."

His lips thinning with understanding, Jim nodded. "We'll just have to hope he does remember," he sighed. "In the meantime, I don't think he should be left alone. If someone attacked him deliberately, he could still be in danger."

"I'll stay with him," Janey stated firmly.

"Coach, you can't, and you know it," Blair replied, holding up his hands for peace when she glared at him. "You're still recovering yourself and Tommy wouldn't want you taking any chances with your own health."

"I'll stay until the Seattle PD assigns a guard," Jim offered. "If he wakes up, I can take his statement."

"We'll set the fracture in his arm before sending him upstairs," the doctor said. "I'll ensure you're informed when we're ready to move him." Turning to Janey, she added, "If you give me your room number, I'll note that on his chart, so that you will be called as soon as he wakes. But, in the meantime, your friend is right -- you look like you should be back in your own bed as soon as possible."

Reluctantly, Janey agreed. After providing the information to the doctor, she pushed herself out of the chair and, dizzy, she leaned on Blair's support to stand beside her son, to touch his face and briefly hold his hand, before she agreed to be returned to her own room.

Jim followed them back into the waiting lounge and caught Blair's arm to restrain him for a moment. "You'll come back down here after you get Janey settled?"

When Blair hesitated, Janey supplied, "Yes, he will." Catching his mulish glance, she went on, "And if he doesn't tell you what he's gotten himself involved in, come see me and I'll tell you."

"Janey," Blair growled warningly.

"Don't 'Janey' me, young man," she countered, her eyes narrowing as she rubbed her temple, evidently in pain, her limits of tolerance and energy eroded by relief. "I don't know what's going on with you two, but whatever it is can be sidelined until this is over. I nearly lost my son to those bastards, whoever they are, and I don't like the risks you're taking. Jim needs to know."

"Fine," he conceded with ill grace. "Once you're safely in your room, I'll come back here." Without a glance at Ellison, he turned to push her chair out of the lounge toward the elevators.

Jim watched them go with an expression of exasperation overlaid with worry. What was she talking about? What had Blair gotten himself into now? Striding to the bank of public telephones along the wall, he called the PD to arrange for an officer to return to the hospital, to stand watch over Tommy Tarkington. Whatever was going on, he had a feeling he didn't want to be stuck at the hospital indefinitely, waiting for the young man to wake up.

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

Ellison was impatiently pacing when Sandburg ambled reluctantly through the broad portal into the lounge. Though Blair's demeanor was deliberately casual, his coat hanging open and the long navy scarf loose around his neck, the pallor under the dark stubble of his five o'clock shadow belied his manner. Tension fairly vibrated off his tight frame, and his hands were stuffed in his jean pockets to hide their tremble. He waited in the entry only long enough to catch Jim's eye before retreating back into the foyer in front of the Emergency entrance. Loping out to join him, the detective demanded with barely contained anxiety, "Okay, what's going on?"

Blair's eyes lifted to meet his briefly, but then Sandburg's gaze slid off to stare over his left shoulder. "I got a job as a skater with the Follies," he replied tightly.

"You what? When?"

"I stopped by the arena before coming to the hospital earlier," he replied flatly. Once again, he met Jim's eyes but didn't hold the gaze. Shrugging, he half-turned away. "I've got a lot of stuff to go over, so I gotta get going, man."

But Jim grabbed his arm, holding on tightly. "Just hold it a minute, Junior. Not so fast. Where are you staying? And tell me more about this job. Aside from the obvious, why's Janey so worried?"

"They got me a room where the rest of the company is staying, at the Holiday Inn Express near the arena," Blair replied distantly. "And I guess she's worried because I'm ... I'm Tommy's replacement."

Jim gaped at him for a moment, blinking and slowly shaking his head. "Are you out of your mind?" he demanded angrily. "What the hell kind of game do you think this is, Sandburg?"

"A dangerous one," Blair snapped back, finally meeting Jim's eyes, his own flashing with anger. Pulling away from Ellison's grip, he held up a hand to stave his friend off. "You don't have to like it -- and, frankly, this has nothing to do with you. It's the only thing I could think of to try to find out more about what's going on."

"And just what do you think is going on?" Ellison demanded, irate.

"Same as you, probably -- someone is trying to shut down the show, any way that they can," Sandburg replied heatedly. "There's no other reason for anyone to have gone after either Tommy or Janey. They don't know anything. So the assaults had to have been to remove them, not silence them. If I'm right, then Janey at least should be safe here, because she has no clue who shoved and tripped her. But Tommy could be in danger, if they think he recognized whoever ran him off the road."

"You got any ideas who this mysterious 'they' are, Sherlock?" Jim asked scathingly.

Shrugging, Blair shook his head. "No proof, that's for sure," he muttered, then squared his shoulders. "Perkins, the promoter, gives me the creeps. He could have bribed a skater to bump into Janey. But I have no idea why he'd be trying to shut down his own show unless it's some kind of insurance scam and he needs the money. But he'd make more on the gate, so that doesn't make any sense. Maybe there's someone with a grudge against him or something." Meeting Jim's glare, he tossed out aggressively, "You want to help? Maybe your cop friends here in town can dig into his background, maybe come up with a motive."

"Janey's right, this is too risky," Jim growled, shaking his head. "Lead skater? Are you in any shape to do that? Less than three months ago, you took a bullet in your leg."

"Yeah, well, that's why I'm going to have to spend the next two days on the ice, to get ready for the weekend shows that start on Friday night," Blair replied, not backing down. "I'll manage."

"Regardless, it's too dangerous. If you're right and someone is trying to shut the Follies down by taking out key personnel, you've just painted a target on your back."

"If I don't skate, the show will close and we'll never catch who is behind it all," Sandburg argued.

"Sandburg, this isn't your problem!" Ellison countered abruptly. "You're not a cop!"

"Yeah, so I've heard," Blair replied hollowly. "Repeatedly. But you know what? I don't have to be a cop to do this. I just have to skate."

Exasperated, Jim rolled his eyes and he cajoled bitingly, "C'mon, you're too smart to be this dumb."

"Yeah? Well, I'm also nearly thirty years old and not accountable to you or anyone else," Blair retorted, and then added with deliberately hurtful sarcasm, his eyes dark and his voice twisted with the pain he'd been repressing all day, "What's your problem, man? You told Simon you wanted to put me on ice, right? Well, guess what, Jim -- Santa must've been listening, too, 'cause it looks like you get your wish."

"Dammit, Chief!" Jim exclaimed, wounded by the well-placed barb and his fists clenched in hurt frustration.

Before either of them could say more, a nurse called into the waiting area behind them, "Ellison? Jim Ellison?"

"Sounds like you're being paged; they must be ready to move Tommy upstairs. And that's my cue to take off," Blair observed pointedly, backing toward the exit, triggering the automatic doors that slid open behind him, letting in a blustery gust of cold wind. "See you around, man." Wheeling away, he hastened through the open portal into the bone-chilling night.

"Sandburg!" Jim bellowed, taking a step after him but, breaking into a jog across the pavement to his car, his long hair whipped by the wind, Blair didn't look back.

"Jim Ellison?" the nurse called again, stridently, impatience clear in her tone. Cursing under his breath, Jim strode back into the lounge.

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

"Shit," Sandburg swore as he steered out of the parking lot, his eyes narrowed against the glare of snow swirling in the headlights, disgusted with himself for having baited Jim, for lashing out in hurt anger. Jim wasn't the one who had screwed everything up, getting in the way, not knowing when to back off. Jim wasn't the one who had gotten an old friend killed. Hell, if Jim hadn't shown up when he did, they never would have found Tommy and the kid would have died if he'd been out another night, especially as it was clear that the temperature had dipped below freezing. He was out of line taking his hurt out on Jim, way out of line, and he regretted his meanness.

"The good news is that both Janey and Tommy will be okay," he muttered to himself and then added with a poignant ache, "And that Jim cared enough to figure out where I'd gone and followed me down here."

He thought about what Ellison had said as he drove across town to the hotel, that he hadn't meant what he said, how it sounded. But, swallowing, Blair didn't believe that. Figured Jim just felt badly because, though Ellison could be blunt, it wasn't really in his nature to be deliberately cruel. In truth, Jim hadn't said anything to Simon earlier that day that Blair hadn't already thought, more than once, himself. He hadn't been much help when they went after Quinn. He had gotten in the way, complicated things. Simon could have gotten out the back of the mine with Jim if he hadn't have been there, gunshot and slowing them down.

And Janet. Oh, God, Janet. Blair knew he'd never be able to forgive himself for her death.

And he had suppressed important information in the investigation of Orvelle Wallace for murder.

So Jim had every right to rethink their deal, to want to call it quits. Every right. Deep down, Blair knew he had more than enough data to complete his dissertation and that there was no reason to keep hanging around. Except that he didn't want to quit. Didn't want to stop working with Jim, or leave the home that the loft had become. Didn't want any of it to end. But that was just plain selfish -- not to mention completely unrealistic. It had to end sometime. Why not now?

When he got to the hotel, he got his bags out of the trunk and stuck the book of skating routines into his backpack. His reservation was ready and waiting so, in minutes, he was on his way through slightly grungy halls to his room. Flicking on a light, he closed the door and looked around the cramped but adequate space. There was a beat-up desk, an unimpressive armchair that looked dingy and uncomfortable and a slightly sagging queen-size bed. Sighing, he dumped his bags, peeled off his jacket and sat at the desk to again go through the routines, picturing them in his mind, concentrating on the work to mute the sorrow in his heart.

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

Ellison sat in the darkened room, his arms crossed over his chest, watching Tommy sleep. In the silence, he played over the day's events and grimaced dejectedly. All the things he'd done right in the preceding hours -- tracking Sandburg, helping to find this kid while he was still breathing -- paled before the single great wrong thing he'd done. He should never have given voice to his pent-up feelings to Simon; should have just dealt with them and moved on. It wasn't like he hadn't been afraid for Sandburg before. Hell, since day one, his partner had flirted with danger, pulling him under that garbage truck, following the Switchman onto the doomed bus, confronting Kincaid when trapped in the building and finally caught. Standing with him against the murderous twins, facing down the gang who threatened Earl's grandmother -- nearly being murdered by Lash. Caught in Brackett's web, jumping out of a plane over Peru. The list went on and on. And every time, every damned time, Jim had rethought Blair's involvement in his life, so the cold fear that twisted in his gut whenever he thought about how close it had come again yesterday -- shit, was it only yesterday? Well, it wasn't new. Far from new. Was, in fact, getting old. And he should be able to handle it better, except it only seemed to grow worse, more strident.

Sighing, he scraped a hand over his face and then leaned forward, his fingers clasped between his knees and his head bowed. He felt as if they were on a runaway train that was going faster and faster, out of control. And one day, that train was going to crash and ... and Blair was going to end up dead.

The thought clawed at him, churning up nausea and tightening his chest. Jim didn't know what he'd do, how he'd handle it, if that day ever came. Oh, sure, he'd lost others, lots of them. His men in Peru. Jack. Danny. But they were all professionals. They'd signed up for the risks and knew what they were getting into. Hell, it was their jobs. They got paid to play death's game.

But Sandburg? Sandburg hadn't had a clue was he was letting himself in for, wasn't trained, and sure in hell wasn't getting paid a dime for his trouble. And it had already cost the kid dearly, in injuries, in nightmares -- in the guilt over his friend's murder. It wasn't right. None of it. Sandburg shouldn't have to keep putting his life on the line because of their dumb deal. The help Blair had given him to manage his senses from the beginning and every day since was more than enough to earn the right to use the research toward his doctorate.

So fear and guilt warred for supremacy in Jim's heart every time they had a close call. Kept him awake nights and left his palms clammy with anxiety. Yeah, yeah, he'd discussed it, sort of, with Sandburg. Perpetually urged him to stay in the truck or out of the line of fire. Did his best to protect the kid. But Blair never paid any attention. Well, that wasn't exactly fair, but the kid never stayed back, out of danger. Sandburg just kept insisting that he had to be close or he was of no use; and he'd proven his point time and again, when over-stimulation or distraction left Jim helpless, even if only for a brief moment -- but long enough to have been disastrous if Blair hadn't yanked him back from the edge.

So, yeah, he'd mouthed off at Simon that day, given vent to his deepest fears, his inescapable, increasingly urgent need to protect the kid -- and it had been a colossal mistake. Damn. Why, of all things, did Blair have to hear that? Sandburg had been deeply hurt, that much was clear. So hurt he wasn't ready to believe that none of it had been true.

And now Blair was doing it again. Marching straight into the mouth of hell, daring the fates to screw with him. Shaking his head, Jim didn't know if the kid was terminally naïve or terminally brave. Either way, the 'terminal' potential of Sandburg's inevitable willingness to risk it all for the right reasons chilled him to his soul. And this time, Blair was heading into a situation where Jim had no way of protecting him, no means by which to stand between him and danger. His partner was putting himself right smack on the line with no defense, leaving himself wide open and vulnerable to attack. Way too vulnerable.

Exasperated, scared, Jim scrubbed his face with his hands and sat back to again stare at Tommy, willing the unconscious young man to wake up and tell him who had run him off the road. Because the only way Ellison could think of to scoop Sandburg out of the way of the runaway train was to stop it in its tracks. Find out who was behind what was going on and arrest the bastard before he could do any more damage.

And the only person who might be able to help him do that was Tommy.

If he'd just wake the hell up.

And if he remembered anything about what had happened on that curving, mountain road.

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

Bundled up against the weather, Blair arrived at the arena very early the next morning. The locker room was like an icebox and, as he tied his laces with hands numb and blue with cold, he reminded himself wryly of the single downside to skating that he always managed to forget from one year to the next. God, he hated the cold!

After doing his stretches to loosen and limber stiff muscles, he went out onto the rink. Dressed in loose layers, looking more like a bulky scarecrow than the new lead male skater in the ensemble, he began with circuits along the boards, getting a feel for the ice and the dimensions of the oval. Slow at first, then faster, working in various preliminary moves like single jumps, skating backwards, sliding to abrupt stops that raked up the ice under his blades and swooping into whirls. After an hour, he'd warmed up enough to take off one layer of clothing.

And then it was back on the ice, to consciously work through the specific routines he'd committed to memory the night before. The show was a typical extravaganza comprised of a number of scenarios loosely linked under the theme of 'Fairytales', and geared to appeal to both the children and the adults in the typical audience. During the course of any given performance, Blair would begin as Peter Pan, cajoling Wendy out of the safety of her bedroom (he leered to himself, chuckling about anyone mistaking Peter for a prepubescent boy uninterested in girls), and subsequently fighting the evil Captain Hook with sabers over her honor and to save the lives of all the little ones who wanted to remain eternally young. As he slashed his imaginary sword through the air, skating backwards, ducking and lurching from equally imaginary thrusts by his enemy, slid and fell, rolling back to his feet and pressing his own attack forward, he wondered if that's who he was inside. Peter Pan. The guy who never wanted to grow up. Who always wanted life to be full of fun and adventures, eternally reluctant to take on adult responsibilities.

Sighing, he shifted into his next major role: the knight in shining armor who fights the dragon to rescue Sleeping Beauty from her overgrown tower. Was this why he loved working with Jim so much? Because he got to help slay dragons and rescue damsels and other innocents in distress? Got to do something real, something more important and meaningful than banter around ideas? But he was an academic, not an adventurer, wasn't he? Of course he was, which is why he'd become a burden to Jim, why he couldn't ultimately keep up. And as for rescuing damsels in distress, he thought with bitter recrimination, he'd not been able to wake Janet from her eternal sleep.

His skating slowed and he stopped to swallow some water and calm his breathing. He needed to focus on what he was doing, not upon all that he'd failed so spectacularly in real life. Sighing, he rubbed his face and drew in deep breaths. Returning to the ice, he moved through his next major segment in the program. He was the Beast who was tamed by the Beauty, lumbering and awkward, pantomimed actions large and gruff, full of anger. Just being able to play out that sense of being doomed, of self loathing, was a catharsis of sorts. He couldn't finish the act on his own -- he'd need 'Beauty' to attach the wire to the loop that would be in his costume, part of the harness under the clothing, before he could practice the slow twist in the air and the shedding of the beast to become the prince hidden within.

Other skaters began to appear on the ice, and he stopped to introduce himself and learn who they were, where they were from, how long they'd been with the show and, if they were talkative, to push a little and see what they had to say about the run of bad luck the company had been experiencing.

He didn't mention to anyone that Tommy had been found.

By noon, the scar on his thigh was a constant burn radiating through his leg, and he was sweating with exertion. Trembling with weariness, he left the ice to do more slow stretching exercises before he went in search of the canteen and lunch. Though his appetite was practically non-existent, he knew he had to keep pushing proteins and fluids to fuel his body, or he'd never have the stamina to keep up his act. Climbing into the stands to munch on cheese and an apple, to watch others working out and getting a sense of the larger company acts where movement needed precision coordination, he found himself wondering if Tommy had woken up yet, and how Janey was that day. Better, hopefully. More able to recover with her fears about her son alleviated. And he wondered if Jim was still in town -- like he'd've gone before checking out the arena. Yeah, sure, right.

Steps clomping down the risers behind him drew his attention, and he looked around and up, trying not to stiffen with aversion when he recognized Perkins. Nodding, he turned his attention back to the action on the ice.

The promoter slid into the seat beside him. "I was watching you," Lyle said, his tone light, pleased. "You're doing pretty good for the first day out. I think you'll actually be ready, or at least credible, tomorrow night."

"Uh, thanks," Sandburg acknowledged, forcing a smile. "The routines are well documented. If you've got a video of the show that I could watch tonight, that would help me get a sense of how the whole fits together."

"I can get you a copy," Perkins agreed. "Drop by the office on your way out today and it'll be at the desk."

"Good, appreciate it," Blair acknowledged, wondering why he found Perkins so ... slimy. Maybe it was the too-ready smile that never reached his cold, calculating eyes. Or maybe it was the way he leered at the youngest girls down on the rink, nearly salivating over their lithe young bodies. Or maybe he just wasn't a particularly personable man -- unpleasant, certainly, but not necessarily a monster in disguise.

The promoter clapped him companionably on the shoulder, and then rose to amble back the way he'd come, back up to the 'gods', where he could watch and not be clearly seen.

Stretching, hearing aging joints pop, Blair sighed and told himself he really was too old to be doing this, but he rose and went back to the locker room, to once again tie on his skates. When he went back to the rink, he leaned on the half wall and watched the clowns go through their routines, laughing at their antics as they played little pigs cowering away from the wolf, and mice chasing up and down a massive clock, taking pratfalls and spills with impeccable timing and their own odd, gangly grace. What they did took real skill to avoid injury and be funny, and Blair thanked the gods that he hadn't had to replace one of them. He got more of the spotlight, but the work he had to do was far less challenging and much less likely to cause him permanent injury.

When the clowns cleared the ice, he went back on, and this time he met his alternate, Amelie Baker, the principal lead female skater who would be pairing with him during their ensembles. She was pretty with long blond hair tied back and cornflower blue eyes that appraised him candidly. She had the body of an athlete, strong and supple, and he thought, with a cheerful, irrepressible bubble of anticipation in his chest, that working with her wouldn't be too bad.

Might even be fun.

Or could have been, he amended his thoughts as their practice progressed, if she'd ever remember how to smile and was ready to encourage what he was doing right rather than endlessly compare him unfavorably with Tommy, who had apparently -- and increasingly tiresomely as his abilities were lauded nonstop throughout the afternoon -- never done anything wrong.

But then, Tommy was years younger and at the top of his game. Not an aging has-been pushing his limits of remembered skills and endurance.

It proved to be a long day and not a particularly satisfying one. Oh, he was managing the routines credibly well. With another full day of practice, he wouldn't make a fool of himself during the show the next night, but he hadn't learned a single useful thing that might explain what was going on. And he felt like a cad for not letting on to Amelie that Tommy was no longer amongst the missing, for the young woman was clearly worried about him and absolutely certain he wouldn't have simply run off, leaving them all high and dry. Well, more than worried, actually. Blair was pretty sure she was in love with the kid.

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

A uniformed patrolman had been standing watch in phlegmatic silence since midnight, and Janey had found her way, without the need of a wheelchair, to the room by nine AM. Just before noon, a detective from the Seattle PD showed up, introducing himself as Matt Dunn. He had a rugged, outdoors look, solid and dependable, with intelligent brown eyes and casual, comfortable clothing.

"Detective Ellison," he acknowledged warmly, after greeting Janey, "I understand we have you to thank for finding young Mr. Tarkington last evening. Good work spotting those skid marks. You must have amazing eyesight." Jim shrugged and nodded agreeably but, when he didn't speak, Matt went on. "We found traces of burgundy paint in the scrapes along the driver's side of Tommy's vehicle. It's pretty clear he was rammed several times before being forced off the road, so that makes this a case of attempted homicide. What can you folks tell me about the situation?"

Janey explained everything as best she could, and he frowned at her story of being tripped and injured. "You think it was deliberate?" he probed, double-checking as he jotted down notes in a small book that fit the palm of his large hand. When she said she thought it had been, that nobody had admitted knocking her over, he frowned. "And the skater that was burned when the electrical wiring in their suit shorted out? You're saying you think that was deliberate, too?"

"At first, we just thought we were having a run of bad luck," she sighed, pushing her fingers through her short hair. "But when all the accidents started adding up, bringing the show to the point of cancellation, a lot of us began to wonder if something else was going on. Something deliberate."

"I see," he mused, his expression thoughtful as his gaze slipped to Tommy. "Do you have any suspicions of who might be orchestrating all this bad luck?"

Her lips thinned and she shrugged. "The promoter, Lyle Perkins, is an unpleasant individual but there's no obvious reason for him to try to shut down his own show."

"Blair said last night that he'd get more from the gate receipts than insurance, so money doesn't seem like much of motive," Jim interjected.

"Blair?" Matt asked. "Who's Blair?"

"Blair Sandburg. He's my partner," Ellison replied, "a civilian who works with Major Crimes while conducting research for his doctorate in anthropology."

"And he's here in Seattle, too?" Dunn clarified.

Nodding, Jim confirmed, "Yeah. He's uh, decided to try to gain some insider info by taking a job as a skater with the company. He's down at the arena, practicing for tomorrow night's show."

"Uh huh," the detective grunted. "Not sure that's a great idea."

"Neither are we," Jim agreed, his voice tight, "but Blair can be stubborn. And he could be right."

Scratching his cheek, Dunn asked carefully, "You mind me asking how two Cascade PD detectives got involved without us knowing anything was maybe going down?"

"I called the Seattle PD first," Janey intervened, her tone brittle. "I couldn't get anyone to listen to me or help me when I said my son was missing. I was told he was an adult and not enough time had passed for there to be any concern. So I called Blair and Jim, who are personal friends, and asked them for help."

"And it looks like a good thing that you did," Matt replied, backpedaling from his inclination to be irritated at having other cops messing around on his patch.

She nodded grimly and then, when Tommy groaned softly, turned her attention back to her son. Awakened by the voices, he blinked and frowned, looking around in confusion. Finding his mother, ignoring the two strange men for the moment, he rasped, "Mom, what's going on?"

"You were in a car accident, honey," she told him gently, stroking his brow. "But you're going to be fine." Looking over her shoulder, she said, "This is Jim Ellison -- he found you in your wrecked car."

"Ellison? Oh, yeah, you're Blair's friend, right?"

"Right," Jim allowed with a small smile.

"And this is Detective Dunn from the Seattle Police," she carried on. "Tommy, do you need anything? Something for pain?"

"Uh, just some water," he replied, his voice thin, strained. She held a cup and straw for him to take a few swallows. When he was finished, she asked, "Tom, we need to know if you remember what happened?"

Scowling in thought, he sighed. "Not much, I'm afraid. Mostly just being stuck in the car and being afraid nobody would find me," he murmured with a slight shiver. Looking up at Jim, he said meaningfully, "Thanks, Mr. Ellison. I thought I was going to die out there."

"No thanks necessary, Tom," Jim replied soberly. Taking a step toward the bed, he asked, "Do you remember anything about going off the road?"

"Uh, yeah, some," he replied, frowning. "I wasn't drunk or anything. Hadn't had anything to drink, actually. I'd just dropped Mom off at the hotel after rehearsals and went for a drive. It was dark, not much traffic, but I noticed headlights behind me, coming up fast. Sorry, I don't know what kind of vehicle, but when they started to pass, I've got an impression of a dark sedan. Anyway, the guy didn't pass! He rammed me a couple times and I was like, totally stunned, you know? Tried to keep the car on the road but he rammed me again on a curve and I hit the shoulder -- only there was a ditch, and I smashed into a tree. The car was crushed, crumpled -- I was caught by the dash and the steering wheel and couldn't get out."

"You get a look at the other driver?" Dunn asked.

Shaking his head, appearing dismayed to be so little help, Tommy said, "No, sorry. It was so dark, no light except for the headlights. I've got an impression of a man, but that's it."

Jim looked down and away, trying to hide his disappointment. He'd been badly hoping for a lead.

"Detective Ellison," Dunn called quietly. "Could I have a word with you outside?"

In the hallway, Matt asked, "So, what do you think? Just a lot of bad luck or something going down?"

Jim's mouth twisted as he shook his head. "I know it all sounds coincidental and circumstantial," he replied quietly. "But I've got a feeling it's not all just bad luck. Something's going down here, but I've got no clue as to what or why. I would like to know more about this Lyle Perkins -- and, well, if I was back in Cascade, I'd run a check on all the people involved with the show. Maybe it's as simple as a disgruntled employee out for revenge on the boss."

"In other words, you're dying to get involved but don't want to offend the locals," Matt paraphrased the meaning if not the words, a smile quirking on his lips. "Well, since we dropped the ball and you've got some handle on these people already and it's your partner who's gotten himself a job with the show, not to mention one hell of a lot of legwork to check out the whole cast, let's join forces, shall we, Detective Ellison?"

Smiling, relieved at the easy acceptance of his involvement, Ellison nodded. "Sounds like a plan. I've got another day or two before I have to be back in Cascade. And the name is Jim."

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

Blair wasn't a quitter by nature, but by the time practice ended and he'd done his final stretches, he was ready to consider dying as an acceptable alternative to going on with the show. He knew he should probably go by the hospital to see Janey, and he did wonder if Tommy had regained consciousness, but the feelings of obligation and concern were distant, muted and muffled by the exhaustion that weighed him down. His whole body ached, and he knew it would only be worse in the morning if he didn't do everything exactly right -- which meant more stretches when he got back to the hotel, a warm, not hot bath, and still more limbering of his muscles. Man, what he wouldn't give for a massage but he'd just have to live without it.

As for dinner? Well, yeah, his mind thought numbly, dinner was a good idea. He needed the food for energy. But then, he needed energy to go in search of food and, somehow, the lure of his bed was stronger than the attraction of nourishment. Maybe he'd order a pizza for delivery to the room later.

Or maybe he'd just sleep.

When he got back to the hotel, dragged himself in and out of the tub, did his stretches, and crawled into the bed with still damp hair, he wondered idly whether Jim was still in town, or whether he'd gone back to Cascade. Still around, Sandburg thought muzzily, burrowing into the pillow, not sure why he was so certain of that, and too close to sleep to worry about it.

He didn't hear the key in the lock or the door open and close. The brief flare of light from the hallway didn't rouse him, nor did the rustle of paper bags. But the delectable smells of his favorite Chinese dishes invaded his sleep and drew him toward awareness. A single lamp burned on the desk, casting soft illumination over the room and the cartons of food. Blinking, he glanced around and found Jim sitting quietly on the single armchair, watching him.

"Uh, hey," Sandburg muttered with a yawn and a wince as he sat up. "How'd you get in here?"

"Told the desk clerk you were my partner and I'd come down from Cascade to surprise you. The fact that we live at the same address helped convince him -- along with twenty bucks," Jim replied. "The security in this place stinks."

"You brought food," Blair observed, easing himself to the side of the bed, trying not to appear too stiff -- which was hard, since every single muscle seemed to have turned into wood. "What time is it?"

"Not quite ten," Jim told him. "I figured you probably skipped supper."

Nodding, Sandburg studied his friend and decided he no longer wanted to take out his hurt on Jim -- it wasn't Ellison's fault that he had a propensity to screw up royally, or that Jim neither needed nor wanted him underfoot anymore. His angry shot the night before still embarrassed him -- it had been so patently unfair. He was just damned lucky that Jim hadn't written him off completely. "Thanks," he murmured, subdued, waving in the general direction of the food and then vaguely at the room in general. "For checking on me," he clarified solemnly when Jim didn't seem to get the whole message. Wincing, he started to push himself to his feet and moaned softly.

"Stay there, Chief," Ellison directed, standing. "I'll bring it to you."

Shifting to lean his back against the head of the bed, Blair watched Jim serve up two meals on paper plates. "Tommy wake up?" he asked, stifling another yawn.

"Yeah, around noon," Jim replied, bringing him the plate, a fork and setting an open beer on the bedside table. "He's okay, and he remembers the accident, but he didn't get a good enough look to know who it was."

Blair grimaced and shook his head, and then tucked into his meal, a subvocal sound of appreciation at the taste vibrating in his throat. Swallowing, he ventured, "When are you going back to Cascade?"

Jim shrugged as he chewed, and then took a sip of beer. "Simon gave me a couple days, so not until Saturday, at least. Maybe not till Sunday night." His gaze falling to his plate, he went on, "Seattle PD has assigned a detective to the case; Matt Dunn. Good guy, solid. The two of us ran Lyle Perkins and the crew and cast of the Follies this afternoon and evening. Came up with zilch."

Blair thought about that as he ate. "Doesn't make any sense," he muttered. Setting the empty plate aside, and picking up the beer, he thought out loud, "Maybe it was all just accidents and bad luck. Maybe some drunk clipped Tommy and it was just a coincidence."

"You really think that?"

Looking around the room, Blair shook his head. "No. My gut tells me something stinks here, but none of it makes any sense. Why would anyone want to shut down a show that's making money?" Finger-combing his mass of unruly hair, he asked, "What do you think?"

"I think you've got good gut instincts," Jim replied. "We have to dig deeper. You pick up anything at the rink?"

"Well, aside from the fact that Tommy's skating partner, Amelie, is nuts about him and badly resents having to work with a lesser talent, no, not much," Sandburg told him, frustration in his tone. "Right now, to be honest, I'm pretty useless as an undercover agent -- I'm spending all my time on the ice, just trying to get the routines down." Sighing, he rested his head back on the wall and closed his eyes. "Maybe I'll pick up more on the weekend. How's Janey?"

"Better. They'll discharge her tomorrow, but I think she's planning to camp out in Tommy's room until they let him go on Monday," Jim reported, studying his friend. "You're hurting pretty bad, aren't you?"

"Oh, yeah," Blair allowed with a crooked half smile. "But it's nothing more than I expected."

Ellison scratched his cheek and then finished off his beer. "Lie down and I'll give you a massage."

Sandburg's eyes blinked open in surprise. "Why?"

"Because it'll help. If you stiffen up, you'll be useless on the ice tomorrow."

"No, that's not what I meant," Blair returned, frowning in confusion. "I mean, why are you here? Why would you help keep me on the ice? Earlier, I got the impression that you'd be happy if I couldn't do this and got fired."

Looking away, Jim shrugged and sighed. "Don't get me wrong -- I don't want you doing this. I think it's too dangerous. But ... you're right. You're not accountable to me. And if you're going to do this, then I want you in the best shape possible. You might have to duck or run really fast at some point, and you're in no shape to do more than crawl right now. And," he added reluctantly, "you might be our best bet for getting the information we need to stop whatever is going on."

"I don't get it, man," Blair said softly, weariness heavy in his voice and eyes. "I mean, yesterday morning, you sounded like if you never had to see my face again, it would be, like, great, you know? And you were right. Everything you said. You were right. I've screwed up one time after another. But then you track me down to the hospital and show up here with food and TLC ... I appreciate it, Jim. Even if it didn't sound like it yesterday. But I don't understand."

"I know," Jim replied quietly, his gaze averted. "What you heard was ... out of context." Looking up at Sandburg, seeing the tight way he held his body, and the dark shadows under his eyes, he shrugged and suggested, "Look, you didn't want to talk about all that until this case was done, right? And you're too tired and sore to get into it tonight. Roll over. Let me work on those muscles."

Unable to resist the allure of a massage, Blair gave him the ghost of a grateful smile and nodded mutely as he rolled and shifted, to lie facedown on the mattress. "Where're you staying?" he mumbled and then groaned in appreciation as Jim began kneading his shoulders and neck.

"Seems there're no rooms at the Inn, Chief," Ellison replied quietly, not really concerned. "Or anywhere else in town. I'll head to SeaTac -- there're always rooms at the airport."

"Mmm," Sandburg murmured, already drifting off. "If you don't mind sharing, you can crash here, man," he mumbled blissfully at the magic Jim was working on his stiff and sore body. "S'good, man," he whispered huskily, "Thanks," as he slipped into sleep.

Jim worked on his friend's body for an hour and a half, loosening tight muscles and easing away tension. While he kneaded and massaged, he thought about what Blair had said, about believing his comments in the stairwell had been right and just. His jaw clenched with anger toward himself for the damage his careless expounding had wrought. But his own tension eased as he cared for Sandburg, the rhythmic massaging of muscles relaxing him as much as his hands were soothing Blair's aches and pains. The fact that Sandburg hadn't sent him packing was a good sign and the kid's willingness to allow him to both help and to stay the night gave him hope that they'd work their way through this latest misunderstanding. But he couldn't let Blair go on believing that all that he'd said had been true.

By the time he finished, it was after midnight and he had no urge to go back into the cold night. Taking Blair at his word, he accepted the offer of half a bed and crawled in beside his partner, asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow.

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

They had breakfast in the room the next morning, to avoid anyone seeing Ellison with Sandburg.

"Matt, the Seattle detective, and I are going to start asking questions of the troupe today," Jim said as he blew over his hot coffee to cool it. "Maybe someone saw something, or has some ideas that aren't occurring to the rest of us."

"Okay, good," Sandburg replied, shoveling in scrambled eggs for the protein and energy he'd need as the day wore on. "Just being around and asking questions will shake people up -- I might pick up more that they might not tell you, but that they wouldn't talk about at all if you guys didn't rattle the bushes."

Jim winced at the mixed metaphor and Sandburg waved a hand at his coffee, mutely signaling he was only half awake and his synapses weren't firing at full speed yet. It occurred to Jim that they knew one another so well that they both understood so much without words.

The meal finished, Sandburg finished dressing and hauled on his coat, moving easily, without pain. "Thanks for the massage," he said with very sincere gratitude. "I hardly feel yesterday's workout -- and I would've had trouble moving at all, if you hadn't stopped by." Glancing at the bed, he offered, "Feel free to stay here again tonight, if you want." His lip quirked in the barest of impish grins, as he added, "I'm likely to be in even worse shape after the show than I was last night."

Jim chuckled and nodded. "Works for me," he replied agreeably, opening the newspaper. "Saves me the commute."

"See you later, man," Blair called over his shoulder as he slipped out the door.

When it had closed, Jim moved to the window that overlooked the parking lot, and watched Sandburg get into his car and drive away. "Be careful, Chief," he murmured, the knot of anxiety that had eased overnight once again tightening in his gut.

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

On the way to the arena, Blair reflected on Jim's words the evening before. "What you heard was out of context."

"What context?" he ruminated out loud, puzzling it out. "The context that I'm not a cop or that I'm a terminal klutz? Or that we're friends or ... or what?" Sighing, he shook his head, not understanding. But the fact that they weren't fighting anymore left him feeling calmer, less despondent; more able to focus on the case at hand.

More hopeful that, even if his days as an observer were over, at least it seemed pretty clear that they were still friends.

And that realization warmed him, made him smile.

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

Having forgotten the evening before to review the taped show, Blair commandeered a training room at the arena to watch it before hitting the ice. Though he'd been able to visualize his own moves from the diagramed routines, and had gotten a good sense of the pacing and synchronization the day before, being able to see the whole was invaluable. What had still seemed awkward, pieces not quite fitting, fell into place for him and he nodded unconsciously as he watched Tommy and the company perform with confident expertise. Though he worked with abstract concepts every day of his life at Rainier, and with Jim, he was a visual learner and, in the years when he'd been skating, the review of taped sessions had always been essential to his understanding of what was working and what wasn't, and why.

Between his relief that his friendship with Jim, at least, seemed safe, and the settled feeling he'd gotten from watching the video, he was much more confident when he returned to the ice and it showed in his performance. Amelie stopped complaining, though she seemed no less saddened by the fact that he just wasn't Tommy. The skater, Bing Vandenhoff, who performed the roles of the Captain Hook, the dragon and the arrogant huntsman, Gaston, entered into the spirit of their mock duels with more gusto, and laughed in exhilaration at one point. "You're good, Sandburg!" he called exuberantly when he skated off for lunch. "Maybe this show will survive after all!"

Blair laughed at Bing's enthusiasm, feeling good, really good. He still wasn't being of much help in the investigation, but he found he was truly loving being back on skates and having this amazing chance to perform once more, if only for a few shows. He had his teaching fellowship and responsibilities at Rainier to which he'd be returning after the holidays. At that point, the Follies would be finished their run in the States and would be moving up into Canada, to play major cities there. If he and Jim hadn't figured out what was going on by then, they were going to have to give up, like it or not. So he had five shows in Seattle and six in Cascade, three before Christmas and three after, and that was it. Eleven opportunities to live out his dream of what might have been so many years earlier.

During the morning, Blair caught glimpses of Jim and another guy, a little taller and bulkier than his friend -- presumably Matt Dunn -- prowling around the rink, talking with one member of the crew or cast after another. Though he thought he might catch up with Ellison when he took his lunch break, the show's costume designer grabbed him, insisting that he take time to ensure his costumes fit properly. During the fittings, he was told about the police being there, asking everyone questions about all the accidents and the missing skater.

"Oh, yeah?" he encouraged. "You mean there's really something illegal going on? That it's not just, like, bad karma?"

"Oh, something's going on," Mel Dixon, the diminutive tailor with a Bronx accent, muttered as he critically eyed the fit of the Peter Pan costume. "I've been working on shows like this for nearly thirty years and I've never seen such a run of so-called bad luck."

"So, uh, what do you think is happening?" Sandburg probed curiously.

Dixon shook his head. "Damned if I know -- or if anyone knows, for that matter," he growled, scowling furiously. "But someone is sure in hell determined to shut us down, damn their eyes."

Early afternoon was filled with more drills, honing small but essential moves, getting the pacing perfected. Then it was a full rehearsal of the show from start to finish. Though the other skaters performed in their workout clothing, he had to go through all the costume changes, so he'd know what he was doing that night. The timing on each change was very tight, but the costume staff helped and, though it was a bit of a scramble a few times, he managed to not disrupt the flow of the performance. The only real glitch was the metamorphosis from Beast to prince and, once the full rehearsal was over, he and Amelie, along with a technician worked it through until he was comfortable with the process of being hauled nearly twenty feet above the ice and effecting a costume change in full view, masked only by the dancing lights and shadows.

He was sweating when he came off the ice, and was hailed almost immediately.

"Blair Sandburg?"

Turning, he found Jim and Matt approaching. "Yes?"

They introduced themselves and said they'd like a word with him. "Yeah, I heard you guys were asking everyone questions. Not sure how much help I'll be, but we can talk in a meeting room near my locker."

Once they were behind closed doors, Sandburg looked at them hopefully. "You finding out anything?"

Both older men shook their heads. "Everyone is convinced there's more than coincidence and accidents in play," Matt sighed, scratching his cheek. "But nobody has a clue why, or who's doing it."

"Yeah, that's pretty much what I've been hearing, too," Blair replied dejectedly. "I still think Perkins is involved. He was way too eager to hire me, without even a tryout -- like it didn't really matter if I could skate up to standard or not. It didn't feel right then and it still doesn't."

"We've checked him out, Chief," Jim said, frustrated. "He likes to gamble, but never gets in over his head. His bank account is practically non-existent, but he pays his bills on time. Still, it's pretty clear that he needs either the income from this show or the insurance if it was cancelled to make ends meet. We looked into the insurance and the only clauses that will payout on cancellation are in the event of catastrophic interruptions of transportation, the destruction of the arenas where the shows are to be held, or accidents or illnesses that prevent the show from going on. He's trying for the accidents or illnesses clause -- but why is still a mystery. He's been promoting and producing this show on the west coast and into Canada for the past ten years -- and there've never been incidents like these before and no evident reason for the problems to be occurring now." Grimacing, he held Blair's eyes while he rubbed his ear before going on, "But I'm getting bad vibes from him, too. Nothing I can explain," he added with a glance at Dunn, "but he's dirty. I can feel it."

Matt shrugged. "He didn't much like the idea of us snooping around, that's for sure. Kept trying to palm the injuries off as bad luck or carelessness, and he's holding to his story that he thinks Tarkington took off with a girlfriend. But he capitulated pretty fast when we pushed -- muttered that he just didn't want his troupe unsettled right before a show." His lips twisted unhappily. "There's just nothing to hang our hats on. No history of disgruntled employees. No evidence. No motive."

"So now what?" Sandburg asked. "Where do we go from here?"

"Well," Jim sighed and rolled his shoulders, "I'm going to keep poking around, checking out equipment, watching, for the rest of the weekend. If nothing else goes wrong here, well, they're moving to Cascade on Monday, so we can keep on it there. That's the best we can do for now."

Blair nodded. Looking at Jim, he asked, "Have you heard from Janey today? How's Tommy doing?"

"They're going to let him out of the hospital early next week," Ellison replied and then added, clearly pleased to have good news to impart, "I've persuaded them to come up to Cascade for Christmas."

"Oh ... great idea," Sandburg asserted, though his gaze fell away. "It'll be good to have some time to actually visit with them."

But Jim had caught the hesitation and, unsettled by the reaction, he studied his friend closely, suddenly recalling the brief message the kid had left on the kitchen counter when he'd taken off. Blair's note had said, 'If I'm not back by Christmas ....' Jim went still, a cold ball forming in his gut. Didn't Sandburg intend to come back to the loft for Christmas? Were things still that wrong between them? But that was crazy. The Follies would be in Cascade -- where else would the kid be for Christmas?

Standing, Blair told them, "Sorry, but I have to run. I've got to shower, get something to eat, and then get the makeup done, get dressed, you know, for the show." Glancing at Jim as he moved to the door, he said, "I'll see you later, okay?"

Ellison nodded. "Yeah. Later. Good luck with the show, Chief."

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

During the performance, Jim stood in the shadows behind the last row of seats, positioned where he could watch Perkins as well as see the show. The lights went down and the music filled the air and then the skaters spilled onto the rink, decked out in their finery. He soon found it hard to remember he was supposed to be keeping an eye on the promoter, and not mesmerized, awed, by his partner as Blair skimmed across the ice, gliding, leaping, twirling, doing furious battle with villains, nearly dying as the Beast, and then, in the finale, leading the troupe in an eye-catching, exhilarating version of the March of the Toy Soldiers, while sugarplum fairies danced and whirled around them.

But he stiffened when he tore his eyes away and caught Perkins leering at the young girls performing as fairies, lust dark in his eyes, his face flushed with desire. This guy's more than sleazy, Jim realized with a twist of disgust. He'd bet good money that Perkins molested young girls.

Thoughtfully, he ambled out into the encircling hall of concrete where the food and beverage booths were located. Pulling out his cell phone, he punched in a number. "Matt? Ellison. Listen, I've got another angle to try. Could you run the cities where this show has played over the years that Perkins has been with it -- look for any complaints about inappropriate behaviour or complaints from the parents of the local kids from the skating classes that participate as sugarplum fairies in the show. Yeah," he muttered, listening. "I know it's a reach -- but this creep really likes little girls."

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

Blair was nearly euphoric after the show, and the buzz stayed with him all the way back to the hotel. But when the rush of adrenaline died, and the cold night wind cut through his clothing on the way inside, he was left staggering with exhaustion, ready to collapse as soon as he got to his room. Peeling off his clothing, he crawled into the bed and, lying on his stomach, sighed with the simple gratitude of being horizontal.

Jim came in a few minutes later. "Hey, Chief? You still awake?" he called quietly, one brow quirking with amusement at the sight of the clothing lying haphazardly on the floor.

"Uh huh, barely," Sandburg mumbled, unequal to the effort of even opening his eyes. "Man, I am so wiped out."

Shedding his coat, Ellison gathered up and folded the shirts and jeans as he wandered over to the bed. "You were amazing tonight, Chief," he said, pride and respect resonating in his low voice. "Stole the whole show."

Deeply gratified though he knew it was crap -- nice crap, but crap -- Blair smiled wearily. "Yeah? Thanks, man."

"Need another massage?"

"Oh, man, I thought you'd never ask," Sandburg moaned. "I feel like a herd of elephants stampeded over me -- twice."

Chuckling softly, Jim rolled up his sleeves. But his humour faded as he began working on Blair's iron-hard muscles. Somehow, in his head, the easing of physical pain substituted maybe, a little, for the psychological pain he'd inadvertently caused his friend; and the service itself was a kind of penance for having caused the hurt at all. If Sandburg wouldn't accept his regret and apology in words, maybe his touch would convey both how deeply sorry he was and how very much he valued the young man under his hands. Wryly, Jim sighed at his thoughts -- the penance might have better results if the object of his attention ever remained awake enough to appreciate what he was doing, to be aware of the tender, respectful and painstaking care. Yesterday evening, Blair had asked, 'Why?' his expression wary, uncertain -- full of doubts that had cut more deeply than if he'd wielded a blade.

"Because you're important to me," Jim murmured now and smiled wistfully at the sound of the soft snores, and the utter trust Blair had in him, to sleep so soundly under his hands' ministrations, unguardedly allowing this intimacy between them. "Because I love you, you schmuck," he added fondly if poignantly. "I thought you'd figured that out long ago."

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

The weekend was a whirl of continuous activity, beginning with warm-ups and grueling practice sessions in the mornings, followed by the matinee and then the evening shows, playing always to full and very appreciative houses. There were no accidents, no incidents and, gradually, the members of the cast and crew began to relax, daring to hope their unprecedented run of bad luck was over.

Jim figured the good luck was directly attributable to the fact that he and Matt Dunn were an ever-present, formidable reminder that foul play would be swiftly determined and the malefactor would be summarily arrested. But his dark suspicions of Perkins didn't pan out. There'd not been a single complaint, a single unsolved case of child molestation in any city in any state during any of the time periods of the shows held in the past ten years.

Sandburg's joy in being back on skates, in performing his best for a crowd, only seemed to grow as the days passed, and his skating got better and better as he relaxed into his innate sense of drama and fun. The crowds loved him and he glowed with exuberance. His muscles protested less as he grew accustomed to the demands of the regime, but he continued to enjoy the nightly massages, understanding at some level that Jim was telling him something important by being there and by taking such great care of him.

He just wasn't sure what the message was.

Sure, he knew Jim was sorry that he'd been hurt by Ellison's words. And he got that Jim wasn't saying their friendship was over even if his ride was. But it confused him to think that Jim was trying to convey a kind of ever-present affection, as if he didn't mind that Blair had screwed up so many times, sometimes with such terrible, irrevocable consequences. Jim was big on being responsible and accountable for one's choices and actions -- and Blair felt the implied forgiveness was too easy, unearned and unwarranted. Perversely, it made him feel as if Jim just didn't expect all that much from him, so hadn't been all that disappointed when he'd screwed up. Deep down, that hurt, really hurt, and offended some sense of personal dignity and commitment to do his best, to be expected to do his best, always. He knew they needed to talk about it, but there wasn't time in the relentless schedule in Seattle, nor was there enough space in the tiny room they shared safe from prying or suspicious eyes to pace -- which both of them seemed to need to do when talking -- and nowhere to go to escape if things got too intense and they needed a break. Yes, they'd talk, but only once they got back to Cascade. When the case was done, if they could finish it up before the performance the afternoon of Christmas Eve. And Blair sure hoped they could, because he felt too much like an interloper to feel comfortable back in the loft over Christmas -- and Christmas Day sure wasn't the time to try to have the kind of discussion that was needed.

Unaware of the raw self-doubts plaguing Sandburg just under the surface of his very evident enjoyment at the unlooked for opportunity to once again be the best he could be on the ice, Jim couldn't understand why Blair was still so essentially reticent with him, why he still held part of himself at a distance and would only talk about the case, not about the misunderstanding that continued to hover like a shadow between them. The persistent mixture of clearly unbounded trust with equally obvious doubt confused Ellison and he wasn't sure what more he could do, at least until they got home and could talk, even yell if they had to, to clear the air between them.

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

It was early on Monday morning that Jim finally packed up his gear in preparation for his return to Cascade. "Simon expects me back on duty this morning," he said with a glance at the clock. It was five-thirty AM, and he had plenty of time to get back to the office by eight. "You coming in later?" he asked.

"Yeah, it's a free day but we're expected to be in town by late afternoon," Blair replied, still lying in the bed. "I thought I'd stop by the hospital to see how Janey and Tommy are doing before I leave Seattle."

Frowning as he listened, Jim zipped up his bag and straightened. "No, I meant will you be in the office later?"

"Oh, uh, no, I hadn't planned on that," Blair said. "I thought I'd hang out with others from the company and continue to dig for more gossip or possible leads."

"Okay -- so I'll see you back at the loft."

"Um, well, I figured I'd stay in the hotel with the cast and crew -- you know, to not blow my cover."

Jim's expression flattened. "You still haven't forgiven what I said, have you?"

"Oh, hey," Blair exclaimed, sitting up. "There's nothing to forgive, Jim. I said that the other night. I mean, you didn't say anything that wasn't true and you've got a right to your feelings."

"And I thought I'd told you that what you heard wasn't the whole story -- that it was all out of context," Jim grated, frustrated to apparently be no further ahead in terms of resolving the situation between them than when he'd arrived days ago.

"Yeah, well, context can only change reality so much," Blair murmured, looking away.

Shaking his head as he pulled on his coat, Jim grunted, "I thought you were the one who was always saying that reality is only perception. Seems to me that context can make a huge difference to perception."

Blair shrugged and crossed his arms, feeling chilled.

Studying him, Jim asked quietly, unhappy with the slightly plaintive note that haunted his voice, "You will be home for Christmas, right?"

Flicking him a look, Blair swallowed. "I don't know if that's a good idea," he said uncertainly.

"No? Well, let me correct that misconception right now, Junior," Jim grated. "It's usually a damned good idea to be home for Christmas every chance you get, so plan on being there."

"Jim," Sandburg replied, struggling to keep his voice even, "it might make more sense in terms of getting to the bottom of this case for me to stay in the hotel with the other cast members who have nowhere to go on Christmas. I might ...."

Waving off further comment, not wanting to hear it, Jim turned away. Badly hurt by the fact that Blair very evidently hadn't forgiven him at all for his untoward and ill-considered comments, Jim picked up his bag. "Well, you do what you gotta do, Chief," he rasped, his throat thick. "But I'd like it if you came home."

When the door had closed behind him, Blair sat for a long time, staring into space. He knew Jim well enough to know his friend was hurting when he left and that hadn't been his intention. He had been so sure when he left Cascade that Jim wanted space and peace -- and then he looked at the other side of the rumpled bed. Apparently, Jim wasn't so anxious to have space that it had stopped him from crashing here the last few nights. Frowning, he shook his head. What exactly did Jim want from him? Okay, he got that they were still friends, and that was great, really great. But did this mean that Jim was also comfortable with the idea that he'd continue living in the loft, even if their deal was done and they weren't really working together anymore? Blair had just assumed that Jim would want him to move out -- but maybe he'd been wrong about that.

Slowly, a smile blossomed on his face. Looked like the loft was still home; better than that -- looked like Jim really wanted him home for Christmas. And that meant he could be there, to see the look on Jim's face when he opened his present this year, a gift Sandburg could never have afforded if Orvelle hadn't wangled him a really great deal on the two season's passes to seats right behind the players' bench. Jim was going to love those seats -- was going to love being able to go to all the games, providing he wasn't on stakeout for some of them.

Blair was selfish enough to hope that, occasionally at least, Jim would let him use the second ticket. It was a way of having fun together and they didn't do stuff just for fun nearly often enough. If all they had left was their friendship, if the partnership was over, then having fun together became all that much more important. Vitally important actually -- or eventually, even living under the same roof, they'd drift apart. And that was something Blair really hoped wouldn't ever happen.

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

"Ah, Jim, I don't know," Banks hedged, a pained expression twisting his lips. "A few broken bones, somebody gets tripped and someone else gets forced off the road and suffers a fractured arm -- not exactly a set of major crimes. I understand your concern, but we've got more than enough work without babysitting Sandburg while he fulfills some fantasy about being a figure skater."

Jim's eyes were hooded as he stood with his hands on his hips and studied the floor, not quite appearing mulish, but not looking happy either. He grimaced and shrugged and then sagged into the nearest chair -- and Simon rolled his eyes. Ellison sitting instead of Ellison going back to his desk to work meant the discussion wasn't over.

"I hear you, Captain," Jim sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "It's all nebulous and apparently insignificant -- but one kid was burned pretty badly, Janey's skull fracture could have been a lot more serious, and if we hadn't have found Tommy, well, he'd be dead. Those aren't minor assaults and they sure in hell aren't all accidents. Perkins is dirty. I just haven't figured out what his game is yet, but I suspect it involves molesting preadolescent girls, young girls, innocent girls -- and that is a major crime if he's been at it for years and nobody's caught him yet. And, well, it's also shaping up into a huge insurance fraud, which is also a major crime."

"Pure speculation," Banks countered. "You've got no evidence, no motive."

"I've got means and opportunity," Ellison retorted irritably, and then visibly reined back his aggression. "I'm only asking a few more days. I think the reason the incidents stopped was because he knew the Seattle PD were watching him."

"Following your logic, if we start watching him, nothing will happen here either, and we'll be no further ahead before the show leaves town and heads up to Canada," Simon pointed out. "I'm all for crime prevention, Jim, but this case is like trying to grab onto fog."

Squinting up at the ceiling as if searching for another way to get agreement, Jim grimaced and shook his head. "Okay," he finally capitulated. "Then maybe you can approve some holiday time for me, just until the Follies finish here in Cascade."

Simon looked away, not thrilled with the request. Ellison certainly had enough leave credits banked, but it would be Christmas in a few days and the roster was already thin. Buying time, he swiveled around to pour himself a cup of coffee, the new blend from New Zealand smelling tantalizingly rich and full-bodied. He wordlessly held up the pot and, after Jim nodded, poured a second cup. Carrying both mugs around his desk, he handed one to Jim and blew on his own. Sliding a hip onto his desk, he asked, "So, is the kid any good?"

"Huh?"

"Skating? Is he doing okay in the show? Holding his own? Is he on the ice much?"

"Sandburg replaced Tom Tarkington when Tommy went missing -- he's the principal male lead and is on ice nearly all the time," Jim replied. "And he's brilliant, Simon. It's like he was born to skate. You should take Daryl -- it'll blow you away."

Banks blinked in surprise, having thought the most Sandburg would manage was a role in the chorus. "Has anyone taken a shot at any of the lead female skaters?" he asked, sipping carefully.

"One was sidelined soon after the show started, four months ago, when a stage set gave way and she blew out her knee," Jim replied. "She was the victim of the first 'accident'. The current lead has doting parents who have made it their life's work to travel with her, picking her up after work, staying with her in a different hotel. Sandburg thinks she has the hots for Tommy, so they may be trying to nip that in the bud by keeping contact between them low." Jim shrugged, not really caring about the family dynamics of other skaters. "Point is, she's not an easy target -- one or both parents are present at every practice, rehearsal and show. They drive the crew nuts with checking out all the equipment to make sure nothing goes wrong and their little darling doesn't get hurt. Whatever."

"So, if someone is trying to stop the show, get it cancelled, Sandburg would now be the main target?"

Jim nodded soberly. He drank some coffee and then leaned forward with a sigh. "I'm missing something," he said distantly. "I know this bastard is dirty." Looking up at his boss, he emphasized, "I know it. I just haven't found the right thread to follow yet."

Thinking about it, Simon looked away. "You get everything else sorted out with the kid?" he asked.

When there was no immediate response forthcoming, he pinned Jim with a penetrating look. "What? He still thinks you meant what he heard?"

"Worse," Ellison grunted, looking up to meet Simon's gaze. "He thinks everything I said was completely legitimate, warranted. He's convinced himself that he is a burden that gets in the way, can't be trusted and got his friend killed."

"And you haven't corrected that misapprehension?" Banks barked, irritated.

"I tried," Jim exclaimed, stung, "but there was never any time to talk it out and he wasn't listening."

"Maybe you didn't try hard enough," Simon rumbled, annoyed. When Jim threw up his hands in exasperation and sat back, his expression closing down defensively, Banks sighed. "Well, you'll work it out," he muttered, circling around to again sit behind the desk. He tapped the side of his fist lightly against the blotter and then nodded to himself. "Okay, you're right -- it's just good luck that the assaults didn't result in more serious injuries, even death. And if this guy is as dirty as you think he is, then we need to nail his ass." When Jim looked up, relief and gratitude plastered all over his face, Banks held up a hand to forestall any mushy nonsense that would only leave them both uncomfortable. "Besides," he went on quickly, with an evil smile, "who knows when we'll all have another chance to see Sandburg capering around in tights on skates -- should be good for years of heckling."

Surprised into a bark of laugher, Jim leaned back in his chair. Toasting his boss with the coffee mug, grinning, he affirmed, "It's a sight worth seeing, sir. I promise you that."

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

Blair stopped in at Mercy Hospital before leaving town, to check in with Janey and to see how Tommy was doing. When he walked into the room, he grinned to see the younger man sitting up in bed, playing cribbage with his mother. "Well, you're looking a lot better," he observed cheerfully, ambling across the floor to drop a kiss on Janey's cheek. Giving her a critical look, noting the fading bruises, he added, "Both of you are looking a lot better."

Tommy held out his hand to shake Sandburg's. "It's been a while, man," the kid observed warmly.

"Yeah, you were like, what? Only about four and a half feet tall when I last saw you," Blair teased. "You've turned into one heck of a skater, man. I saw the tape of the show and you're awesome."

Pleased, Tom grinned. "Yeah, well, all my life, I've been trying to be as good as this other guy, you know? When I was a kid, I used to watch him skate and just dream of being like him someday."

Chuckling, Blair looped his arm around Janey and gave her a sideways hug. "The secret is to have the right coach."

She laughed and then sobered. "I guess Jim has already gone back to Cascade."

"Yeah, he left early this morning, and I'm going to head back when I leave here," he told them.

"Blair," Tommy said solemnly, "thank you for helping to find me."

Shrugging, Sandburg waved off the gratitude. "We were both really glad to find you and Jim deserves the credit, believe me. So they're letting you out of here this week, huh? And you're coming to Cascade for Christmas? That's great!"

Tommy blushed and looked away. "It was good of Jim to invite us, but, um, well, I feel pretty bad about Amelie not knowing yet that I'm okay and I want to surprise her at the end of the show on Christmas Eve."

"Tommy's hoping her folks will invite us to spend part of the holiday with them," Janey teased lightly.

"Well, if Amelie has anything to say about it, I can pretty much guarantee you'll be spending all of the holiday with them," Blair laughed and then smiled kindly into Tommy's startled eyes, glowing with the hope he was telling the truth. "She's really worried about you and talks about you like, all the time, man."

"Don't worry," Janey interjected, "we'll find some time to make sure we have a good visit with you and Jim, too."

Blair held his smile but his gaze dropped away as he nodded. "That would be great but, um, well, I might still be undercover with the company, so I don't know if I'll be home for Christmas this year -- or maybe not much of it, anyway."

Her eyes clouding, Janey took his hand. "What's going on between the two of you? Something's been wrong since you got here."

Shrugging, making light of it, Blair told her not to worry. "It's no big deal," he went on, his voice a bit strained. "Just that I think that Jim's getting a little tired of me hanging around him on the job and he's right. It's been more than two years."

She gave him a long assessing look. "He's worried about you," she said softly. "I think it scares him when he thinks you might get hurt and he can't stop that from happening. A couple years ago, when you were crushed in his truck? He'd've done anything to take away your pain. It was hard on you, such a long recovery, but I sometimes wonder if, in some ways, he didn't suffer as much or more. That man really cares about you, Blair."

Sobering, Sandburg nodded. "Yeah, I know," he murmured. "He's the best friend I've ever had, probably ever will have."

"Yes, I think he is," Janey agreed. "And I also think that you're the best friend he's ever had, or will have. So whatever is wrong between you, make it right again."

Blair left shortly afterward, glad that the weather had cleared and the drive back to Cascade would be less challenging than the drive down. As he sped along the highway, he thought about what Janey had said -- and what Jim had said the other day, that his remarks in the stairwell needed to be understood in context. Was that it? Was the 'context' that Jim worried about him, was just afraid he'd get hurt again -- or worse than hurt -- that he'd get killed? Things had gotten pretty hairy at the Lazar compound the day before. Had Jim said all that about wanting his observer pass pulled only because he was worried? Nodding to himself, Sandburg thought that could well be it. From that perspective, everything about Jim tracking him down and being so supportive made perfect sense. Jim wasn't mad at him and hadn't been -- had just been worried that he might get hurt if he kept hanging around playing at being a cop.

Though the new insight made him feel better, at least about things between him and Jim, none of that changed the cold, hard facts. And the facts were that everything Jim had said that day was true.

When he checked into the hotel designated for everyone in the show, he ran into some of the other skaters in the lobby. After arranging to meet them for dinner, he dumped his gear in his room and called the loft, to leave a message about where he was staying, but that he'd be out for the evening with other cast members, to see if he could pick up any more clues.

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

The next day, as he was making his way from the locker room to the arena for rehearsals, Blair saw Rafe in the garb of a security guard loitering in the hall.

"Hey, nice duds," Sandburg teased, eying the dull brown and very rumpled uniform.

The young detective grimaced and rolled his eyes, and they both did a quick check over their shoulders to ensure they were alone for the moment. "Jim would've been here, but he doesn't want Perkins to know he's still being watched," he explained, his voice low and confidential. "H and I pulled the security detail, while he and Captain Taggart keep digging into Perkins' past."

"Thanks for being here, man," Blair replied, his voice equally low. "I was afraid Simon might not think what's happening with this group warrants keeping close tabs on the show."

"Well," Rafe replied, shrugging philosophically, "there's sure not much to go on. But if this guy is dirty, we'd like to catch him before the company leaves the country."

Sighing, Blair shook his head. "I can't believe nothing more has gone down since Jim and I got involved. It's like he's waiting us out. But I really don't think he knows I'm connected to the police, and nobody here knows anything yet about Tommy being found. Perkins was looking a little twitchy during the show Sunday night, like he's impatient for something to happen, but I have no clue what."

"I guess all we can do is try to catch him in the act," Rafe murmured. And then they split up, going their separate ways before anyone spotted them talking.

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

Jim and Joel dug deep into Perkins' past, all the way back to his adolescence in Nebraska, but they found nothing solid. He'd been a small time hustler before turning his talents to sales, and spent several years as a marketing agent for a figure skate manufacturer. Promoted up the chain, he'd gotten experience running a small plant and, in that capacity, he helped sponsor various ice shows in his community in Pennsylvania. That connection led to him accept a position with the company that owned the Ice Follies, a collection of three traveling shows, one that worked the east coast up into Canada, another that covered the Midwest, and Ontario, Canada, and the western troupe along the US west coast and Canada from the Pacific to the Prairies. Ten years ago, he'd been made a partner of the firm and given the west coast show to promote and manage. During that time, the show had consistently broken even and sometimes even had made money. He'd never married and had a reputation as being something of a loner. Calls to Arena General Managers along the coast elicited careful commentary that suggested that even if he'd desired a more active social life, he wasn't someone others chose as friends and associates. No one said anything specifically bad, that could be libelous, but no one had anything good to say about him either.

But being a jerk didn't make him a crook.

"Maybe it's someone else associated with the Follies," Joel suggested. "Someone on staff, maybe in maintenance or set design, who could have fiddled with the electrical wiring on that kid's costume."

Jim raked his fingers through his short hair and shook his head. "Matt Dunn and I went through the cast and crew with a fine-toothed comb. There's nothing there."

"Well, I can't figure out why a man would try to shut down his own show," Taggart sighed, leaning back in his chair. "He's not been a roaring success, but he hasn't failed, either. His job isn't at risk. Makes no sense."

"Yeah, I know," Jim grated, his eyes narrowed in thought. Sighing, he said, "I'm going to see if we missed anything on complaints or incidences of child molestation in the communities the show has played in, and farther back, checking everywhere he's ever lived."

Quirking a brow, Joel observed dryly, "That's going to take us days -- and even then, it's not enough to bring him in."

When Jim stood to return to his desk, the older man said, "Oh, by the way, Rafe called in. Said there wasn't anything to report -- but Blair said he thought Perkins seemed twitchy, as if he was impatient or waiting for something to happen."

Chewing on his lip, Jim thought about that. "You know, the incidents of accidents, and then the assault against Tommy and Janey were escalating, coming closer together, until everything stopped in Seattle," he mused, wondering if the timing meant anything. Shrugging, he threw up his hands and went back to work.

But he thought about what Blair had said, couldn't get it out of his mind. Couldn't stop worrying that if something was about to happen, it was going to happen to his partner if he didn't figure it all out damned soon.

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

Jim and Blair talked on the phone Tuesday night, both of them frustrated and discouraged about the lack of progress. Wednesday was equally uneventful and the mood of the company began to lighten, as if they were beginning to believe all their bad luck was behind them -- though a few, like Amelie, still wondered and worried about what had happened to Tommy to cause him to disappear into thin air.

The whole Major Crimes Team treated themselves to the Wednesday night show, and Simon brought Daryl along, all of them eager to see Sandburg do his stuff. Brown and Rafe had reported back that the kid looked damned good in the practice sessions. Jim, wearing a cap pulled down over his eyes and his collar up to obscure part of his face, kept a wary eye out and took care to avoid being spotted by Perkins, though he watched Perkins more closely than he watched the show down on the ice.

While the others boggled at the sight of Sandburg, elegant and masterful in colorful tunics and tights as he bested Captain Hook and the wicked dragon with flashing cutlass and sword, caught in the spotlight as he whirled and feinted, slid under slashes and leapt into spectacular jumps or whirls that left them gaping in awe, Jim noted that Perkins did, indeed, seem 'twitchy'. He kept shifting around in his seat, tapping his fingers on his knee, crossing or uncrossing his arms. Several times, he got up to pace briefly in the slots behind the rink.

The show went on, and the poignant plight of the Beast brought tears to Rhonda's eyes and she sniffled discreetly in the darkness. When the Beast transformed in a magical light show that included some fireworks, the whole audience gasped in wonder and the children cheered when their hero was restored to life. Perkins sat rigidly in his seat for that whole bit and the spectacular closing number of parading toy soldiers and ecstatic sugarplum fairies. The promoter seemed as enthralled with the kids playing the fairies as he had been in with those in Seattle, licking his lips and ogling them from the safety of the darkness hiding the stands, all the blazing lights focused on the performers on the ice.

The show got a standing ovation and, when Sandburg skated out to take his bows, the crowd cheered with wild abandon. The MCU guys whistled and hollered as they stamped their feet and clapped with thunderous approval, thrilled to their boots with the performance their anthropologist had given that night. Jim looked down and smiled at the incandescent joy on his partner's face and a lump formed in his throat. Regardless of whether they ever got to the bottom of the mystery before the show moved on to Canada, and much as he'd hated the idea of Blair taking such risks in putting himself into potential danger, he was proud of the kid. And he was really, really glad that his friend had gotten this chance to once more show the world how brilliant he was on ice.

Brown had arranged for them all to meet up with Sandburg at their usual tavern after the show. Not a place that tourists typically frequented, there was little fear of blowing Blair's cover. When he slipped through the crowd to the large, round table they'd appropriated, Rafe, Brown and Taggart leapt to their feet to pound him on the shoulders and shake his hand, fulsome in their congratulations and outright amazement at his talent and expertise. He blushed faintly and smiled brightly at their praise. Daryl gazed at him wide-eyed, as if he'd been transformed into a celebrity, someone strange and wonderful, even a bit mysterious.

"You were awesome, dude," young Banks breathed when Blair slid into a chair beside him. "Totally awesome. I mean, I knew from the tapes we saw on the news a couple years ago that you were good -- but that stuff with the swords and, man, that switch from the Beast -- that was, like, incredible!"

Simon laughed, delighted to see his son so excited and sounding younger than the tough teen he too often tried to project these days. "Daryl's right, Sandburg," he rumbled, lifting his beer in a toast, "that was some show. You were great out there."

"Ah, thanks," Blair replied, grinning and signaling to the waitress for a beer, evading Simon's gaze without seeming to do so. "It's a real blast, you know? If it wasn't all so serious, and we didn't need to get this guy for what he's done, man, I'd be having the time of my life out there. It's ... it's like flying. Like being so totally free. There's nothing else in the world like it."

But Banks caught the unusual evasion -- it wasn't like Blair to not connect with his eyes when he was talking. "Whoa," he rumbled, affecting his best Captain's voice, "don't get so enamored with how good it feels that you forget you have a job with us. You got that, Sandburg? I may not pay you, but I do expect you to keep showing up for work."

The others laughed, all but Jim who, along with Blair, understood that Simon was making a point. Sandburg flushed and bobbed his head before cutting Banks a quick, sideways look that mixed embarrassment with gratitude. "I hear you, man," he said, forcing a chuckle. "Nice to know you'd miss me if I was gone."

Banks snorted as he lifted his glass. "Miss you?" he joked back, shaking his head but grinning. "More like miss the reports you write. They're the only ones the DA never gripes about."

Daryl nudged Blair. "So you and Jim are coming for Christmas dinner at our place, right? Dad and I've got it all planned. You know, it's the first Christmas that we'll be together since, well, for a while now."

Blair blinked and looked quickly at Simon and then at Jim, who was sitting on his other side. "Well, I ..."

"Sorry, Chief," Jim inserted, "I forgot to tell you about the invitation when I called last night."

"Yeah, so?" Daryl pushed. "It'll save you guys making dinner this year."

Sandburg swallowed and nodded. "Sounds great," he replied with a smile. Daryl was satisfied but neither Simon nor Jim missed the fact that he hadn't actually said he'd be there. The two older men exchanged glances, Ellison's unhappy, Banks' concerned.

Changing the subject, Blair turned to Jim. "So, you and Joel getting anywhere?"

"Nuh uh," Jim sighed, his lips thin with frustration. "We've checked every town and city in every state that this guy has either lived or worked in, and came up dry."

Shaking his head, Blair sipped at his beer. "Well, I don't know what else we can all do. Maybe he'll get away with it, whatever it is. After next week, the show'll be in Canada until the end of its run in April."

Jim nodded gloomily, thinking about how tense and antsy Perkins had seemed that evening, thinking about how the incidents had become more frequent and had escalated in the last month and thinking about how the show's run in the US would be finished next week and Perkins would be well out of their jurisdiction once he crossed the border.

Jurisdiction.

They'd checked all over the States.

"Sonofabitch," he grated. "That's got to be it."

"What?" Blair exclaimed breathily, rightly reading the new tension in Jim's body and the expression on his face as indicative that he'd thought of something, made a connection.

"Canada," Ellison rasped, turning to look at his partner. "We checked all over this country but we didn't check for wants or warrants in Canada."

"He doesn't want to cross the border," Sandburg gasped, his eyes widening with comprehension. "That's it! That's got to be it! The only way to keep from taking the show across is if it's cancelled. And they make as much on the gate on that side of the border as this one, so the insurance would be essential to break even!"

"I'll make some calls first thing in the morning," Jim asserted tightly. "But this could be it. Maybe we've got it, Chief. The motive. Maybe we've finally got the bastard." Looping his arm around Blair's shoulders, he leaned in. "If we get enough to bring him in, tomorrow could be your last show, Chief. You could come in from the cold."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Sandburg agreed slowly. "I might still have to do the shows next week, though, until they can get a replacement. After all this, I'd hate to see the show cancelled just 'cause I quit and my understudy isn't ready yet."

"What about Tommy?" Jim asked. "If there was no more danger, he and Janey might be glad to rejoin the cast and crew. Would his broken arm keep him from skating?"

"No, he could manage the role with the cast, no problem," Sandburg rejoined. "You're right. That could work -- Amelie would sure be pleased," he added with a grin.

"What about you? You going to miss it?" Ellison probed then, studying his glass of beer.

"Nah," Blair replied without hesitation. "It's been a total blast, but that's not my life anymore. It's just been fun, you know? To experience a little of what might have been?"

"Yeah, I know," Jim agreed, warmth and understanding in his low voice. "Just be extra careful tomorrow until we take him into custody, if we do, if our suspicions are correct and we get the information we need. I was watching him tonight, Chief, he's definitely jumpy -- running out of time, if we're right. No telling what he might try."

"Don't worry, man," Blair returned, the compassion of his new understanding of the probable 'context' behind Jim's words the week before enriching his tone as he reassuringly gripped Ellison's forearm. "I'll be careful. But everyone in the company is so careful, so watchful now, it'd be hard to rig an accident, and with H and Brian there, also keeping watch, I'm sure nothing will happen. He won't be really desperate until next week, and by then, with any luck, the game will be over."

Jim nodded mutely, wishing he could be so sure, but until Perkins was in custody and Sandburg was back in the loft where he belonged, he suspected he was just going to have to keep living with the cold lump of anxiety in his belly. And that led him to wonder just exactly when Blair would be returning home. The kid's evasiveness over the invitation to Christmas dinner was unsettling. Hell, more than unsettling -- downright disturbing. Sipping his beer, he listened to the chatter around the table, and heard the thin note in Blair's voice that suggested his partner's cheerful manner wasn't quite as genuine as he was trying to pretend.

The party broke up before midnight and they all walked out to the parking lot behind the tavern together, splitting up to go to their respective vehicles. Feeling an increasing need to clear the air between them, Jim followed Blair back to the Volvo. When Sandburg looked back over his shoulder, and then paused, his brow arched in enquiry, Jim felt suddenly awkward. Looking around, trying to be casual, he asked, "So, uh, why the hesitation about Christmas dinner at Simon's?"

An expression of uneasiness flitted across Sandburg's face, and his gaze drifted past Jim, to Simon and Daryl who were ambling to the sedan at the far end of the lot. He shrugged uncomfortably and then sighed. "I ... I'm just not sure that Simon, well -- look, I heard him, too, okay? I heard him agree to lift my pass, if that's what you wanted. I guess I just think that he'd prefer if my ride ended, you know?"

"Chief," Jim countered, frustration edging his voice. "I've told you that everything's okay. That I didn't mean what I said -- and Simon was just letting me vent, that's all. You're the only one who doesn't get that there isn't a problem here."

"Jim, I hear you, okay? I really do," Sandburg returned, his voice lowering, his gaze direct. "I get that you didn't mean it and I think I've even figured out why you were griping about things that morning, and I think I understand. I promise, when this case is over and we've got time to talk -"

"I've got time now, Chief," Ellison cut in, tired of the runaround. "You're the one who keeps putting it off."

"Yeah, well, the point is, I understand you're happy to continue with our arrangement, but I don't think those examples you pulled out of the air that morning are happenstance," Blair shot back, and then visibly reined back his emotions. Lifting his hands for peace, he went on, speaking fast as if having to get it all out quickly, "I think you had a point, and whether you meant it or not, that you were right. That's what I'm saying here. I think, maybe, my usefulness to you is ... is over. Man, if I can be of help, I really don't want to quit, you know? But if I'm screwing up, slowing you down, compromising your trust, getting people killed ...." He stopped, swallowed, looked away. "I don't know what to do. I need to think about it all, Jim, before we thrash it out." Taking a breath, looking up at his friend, he said hollowly, "In the meantime, I don't feel comfortable around Simon -- and ... and I don't know if I should still be infringing on your space in the loft."

Gaping at him, Jim rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Damn it, Sandburg," he gusted. "The loft is where you live. It's Christmas, for God's sake! You want to spend tomorrow night and Saturday in some dumpy hotel? With strangers? Whether this case is done or not, I want you back home tomorrow after the show. If we're right about Perkins, then ... then he's going to try something to shut down the show between now and New Year's. Maybe you're not his next target. But if you are, I want you where I can see you over the next few days when you're not skating. I don't want you to go 'missing' like Tommy did."

Blair's eyes burned at the plaintive tone in his friend's voice, and he quickly dropped his head to hide how damned much he did want to go home. He drew in a deep breath and gave a slight nod. "I hear you," he murmured. "And I really appreciate it." Swallowing, he looked up to meet Jim's troubled gaze. "I'll ... I'll let you know tomorrow, okay? But, no. I don't want to spend Christmas with strangers. I just, I just feel confused right now and I feel really badly that I've, I've let you down. Let a lot of people down."

"Chief, you haven't let anyone down," Jim sighed. "I don't know how to get that through to you. I don't know what else to say or do."

"It's not you, Jim," Blair replied softly, an ache in his voice. "It's me. I have to deal with this. Work it out. I'll, I'll talk to you tomorrow, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, fine," Ellison replied hollowly. "Tomorrow." He studied his partner for a moment longer and then turned to walk slowly to his truck, his gait discouraged. Blair looked after him, his eyes wide and dark with sorrow and the longing to follow Jim right on home that night.

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

When Ellison arrived in the bullpen the next morning, Simon noted the dejected set of his shoulders and haggard expression, as if he hadn't slept. Waving him into the office, handing him a mug of coffee, he asked, "What's going on between you and Sandburg? And why did he hedge on dinner tomorrow night?"

Uncomfortable with the questions, Jim's gaze shifted to the windows. Shrugging a little, he sighed and said, his voice low, tight, "He thinks that he really has screwed up, become a burden. That his friend's death really was his fault. And he thinks that you believe all that, too, and would just as soon end his ride." Looking down into the mug cradled in his hands, he muttered, "He's ... he's not sure about staying in the loft much longer. Needs to think about it all." Finally, he glanced up at Simon before again looking away. "I've told him that he's wrong, but he's not listening. I'm not sure what else I can say." His jaw tightened and then he took a sip of coffee.

Frowning with concern, Banks chewed on his inner lip. Finally, he sighed. "He'll come around," he offered. "I can't believe he really wants to quit."

"He doesn't," Ellison replied. Swallowing, wanting to escape from talk about personal issues that left him feeling helpless, he stood. "I need to follow up on the possible Canada connection on the case."

Nodding, Simon waved him out. "Keep me posted."

Back at this desk, Ellison got in touch with counterparts in several major western Canadian cities, asking for information and expressing the need to obtain anything they might have on a Lyle Perkins, promoter and producer of the Ice Follies, as quickly as possible. His requests were met with harried courtesy and the reminder that it was Christmas Eve; his contacts would get back to him, but maybe not until after the holiday weekend.

And then there wasn't much more that he could do but watch the clock and wait with increasing impatience.

"Any luck yet?" Simon asked, stopping briefly on his way past, to pull on his overcoat.

Shrugging, Jim shook his head and sighed. "One guy thought the name was familiar, but that was it. They all said they'd get back to me, but maybe not until next week."

"Well, with the holiday'n all, I guess that's not surprising," Banks muttered.

"Going somewhere, sir?" Jim asked, watching his boss button his coat.

"Got a few errands to run," Simon replied, moving off.

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

Janey had already packed up her car and checked them out of their hotel rooms when she went to the hospital to pick up her son. They'd decided to drive straight to Cascade, aiming to arrive before the matinee show that afternoon. As they drove along the highway, Tommy talked about seeing Amelie again and his hopes that her parents would unbend enough to invite them to celebrate Christmas together. Janey nodded agreeably. She liked Amelie and, for Tommy's sake, hoped things would work out, but she wasn't impressed with the girl's parents and wouldn't personally be disappointed if Tommy's hopes didn't come to fruition.

In truth, she was only half listening. Ten days before, she'd been frantic about her son's disappearance, certain something terrible had happened to him. Just over a week ago, she'd been injured herself and she'd called Blair for help. Her trust had not been misplaced -- Blair and Jim had dropped everything and responded immediately. And now Tommy was sitting beside her, well on his way to recovery, the only evidence of his ordeal the cast on his arm and the healing abrasions on his face. And she was fine.

But Blair was still trying to help, trying to find out who was behind the assaults, and Jim was still trying to find out why they and others had been hurt. She knew they suspected Lyle Perkins, and he was her first choice as the guy most likely to be a criminal, but suspicions wouldn't impress a judge. Sighing, she glanced at the dash clock and then pressed a little harder on the accelerator. She was grateful for the risks Blair was taking by replacing Tommy in the show but she'd been worrying about him, worrying that he might get hurt. The fact that nothing had happened didn't alleviate her anxiety. If anything, her uneasiness only increased. She felt a sense of urgency, a nebulous frisson that time was running out and she was tired of being a victim and observer -- she wanted to help bring it all to a head, if she could. Glancing at Tommy, knowing that no one in the company knew he was no longer missing, she thought their presence at the performance that afternoon might shock Perkins enough to make him do something, say something, anything that would end the mystery before anyone else got hurt.

And there was another reason she wanted to get into the city in time to see the whole show. A very personal reason, one she wasn't sure anyone would understand. As much as she was worried about Blair, would have much preferred that he had not insinuated himself into the company and perhaps put himself into danger by doing so -- she also, very badly, wanted to see him skate that afternoon. She'd worked with him for years, helping him hone his natural talent, watching him work so damned hard, listening to his dreams and he'd been robbed of all of it. Hurt so badly that for too long she and his mother had thought he might die. God, that had been a terrible time. She'd rejoiced when they knew, finally, that he was going to recover, well, that he was going to live. But he'd never recover fully. Would never skate again, not like he had. His dreams would never be realized. And that had haunted her ever since.

Because it had been so utterly unfair.

As good as her other kids had been, and some, including her son, had been good enough to go on to win medals and international acclaim, Blair had been better than any of them. Been the best she'd ever seen.

And because, as much as she dearly loved her son, she had also come to love Blair as a son those long years ago. The time and distance that had separated them since hadn't changed the way she felt about him. Two years ago, she'd scarcely believed her eyes when he walked into the locker room, the day she'd met Jim Ellison for the first time. She still trembled to remember those days, and how close Blair had again come to dying at an assassin's hands, for all the same reasons, dammit, as he'd been hurt a dozen years before. And she still got misty remembering those moments when Blair had been given the acclaim he so rightly deserved at the end of the World Championships in Cascade. But that gold medal, as much as it acknowledged his youthful brilliance, wasn't the same as being able to live his dreams. And then, eighteen months ago, to see him struggling again, striving to be the best he could be, to master his fears and his sense of physical vulnerability after months of pain and recovery, to see him triumph again -- well, those moments had brought back all the heartbreak and raw regret for what had been stolen from him by a sniper's bullet.

Skating in the Follies was as close as he was ever going to come to realizing those old dreams, however briefly, and she wanted to see that, to see him skating again so brilliantly, performing full routines in front of an appreciative crowd; wanted that so badly that she ached inside. When he'd skated in Seattle, she'd read the reviews and knew he'd done well, but she couldn't bring herself to leave Tommy's side, not even for Blair. But today, nothing was going to stop her from seeing her boy on that ice. Today, she'd finally get to see him realize some of those dreams and once again see the light and sheer joy on his face, the exhilaration that was always there, whenever he was on skates.

She wasn't sure anyone would understand why it was so important to her; another coach maybe, someone who spent their lives assisting others to achieve their potential greatness and took unconditional joy in their accomplishments. But, dammit, the kid had been great and he deserved this. Deserved to have others know how great he was on ice. Just this once, she wanted to share those moments with him because, deep down, she knew there was no one else in the world who could ever know how much it meant to him. No one else who could look into his eyes and read his heart and know what he felt to be able to do this; no one else with whom he could share the magic and glory of it all and know, without doubt, that he was understood.

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

"Hey, Blair!" one of the props guys called out. "Someone wants to talk to you."

Sandburg slid to a stop, his skates sheering the ice, and looked around, surprised to see Simon standing in the lists with his arms crossed, waiting for him. Calling to Amelie to take a break, he skated over and left the ice.

"Hey, Simon, what's up?" he asked, wondering if there was news, but surprised that it would be Banks who'd come personally to deliver it.

"Blair," Banks nodded, looking around. "Is there someplace we could talk for a few minutes?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," Sandburg replied, and led the way to one of the training rooms. Closing the door behind them, he looked up, concern in his eyes. "Jim's okay, right?" he asked anxiously, unable to think of another reason for the Captain's presence.

"Yeah, he's fine," Banks assured him. "It's you I'm worried about."

"Me? Well, thanks, but there's been no problem so far -"

But Simon lifted a hand, cutting him off. "I don't mean about the potential danger of what you're doing here, although that does worry me and if it had been up to me, you wouldn't be doing this," he rumbled. "But I'm talking about what you overheard last week."

"Oh," Blair murmured, his lips parting in surprise as his gaze skated away.

"Jim says you've got yourself convinced that what you heard is true, and that you haven't given him a chance to sort it all out," Simon continued, looking both stern and concerned. "And don't think I missed the fact that you didn't commit to Christmas dinner last night."

"Oh," Sandburg muttered again, uncomfortable. Swallowing, he lifted his gaze to Simon's. "Look, it's okay. I understand that I've screwed up pretty badly and ... and I can understand why my run as an observer should be ended. Jim ... Jim's tried to soft-pedal it. And I understand that he said what he did partly because he's, well, he worries about me getting hurt. But -"

"Would you just stop," Banks interjected, leaving Blair gaping at him. Sighing, he shook his head. "Blair, you haven't screwed up and I don't understand why you're so sure you have. From my perspective, you've been doing a good job of sticking with Jim, helping him out, backing him up. I don't want to end your observer status, and neither does he."

"Yeah, but, I was in the way, Simon, when we went after you and Quinn -- I did slow him down," Blair protested.

"You kept him grounded, kept him focused and not all caught up in his senses," Banks argued. "Alone in that bush, trying to track using scent and sight -- he might well have zoned and you know that. That's why you went with him."

"Well, yeah, and because I was worried about you," Blair allowed. "But I did, uh, sort of, well, withhold evidence ...."

"You what?" Banks grated, glaring at him, but then he shook it off. "You told Jim about this? Cleared it up with him? It didn't screw up a case and you know better now?"

Nodding, swallowing hard, Sandburg affirmed, "All of that, yeah, but Jim was seriously pissed and I'm not sure he trusts me like he did."

"Everyone makes a bad judgment call at one time or another," Simon sighed. "It's not the end of the world, so long as you never do it again."

"Okay, fine, I hear you about that, but ... but Janet, my friend?" he returned, flicking a look at Banks and then away, his throat suddenly tight.

"I know who Janet was," Simon supplied, his tone kind. Moving to grip Blair's shoulder, he said compassionately, "I'm sorry she was killed. But that wasn't your fault. She was doing what any good citizen would do, anyone who cared a fig about the environment and the people impacted by rampant and illegal, exploitive actions would do -- she blew the whistle and provided us with essential information to stop Cyclops Oil from further rape of the rainforest. Unfortunately, her integrity and courage cost her her life."

"She wouldn't have been involved if I hadn't asked her to help," Blair argued, his voice uneven, cracking.

"You really believe that? You believe that once she found out about the investigation that she wouldn't have checked into things herself -- and then let us know what she found?" Simon challenged. "She was your friend, Sandburg -- was she the sort of person to look the other way once she knew something like that was going on?"

Swallowing convulsively, his head bowed, Blair whispered, "No. No, she wasn't. She was fearless. And she was fiercely committed to her work."

"I know it hurts, son," Simon said quietly. "Hurts like hell to lose a friend like that. To wish you could have saved her life. But it's not your fault she was murdered. You've got to let the guilt go."

Not trusting his voice, Sandburg sniffed and swiped at his face, nodding though he kept his head down.

"For the record," Banks said quietly, "during the lunch you missed, Jim admitted that he's afraid he won't always be able to protect you and that you'll get hurt. That worry bothers him a lot. After the two of you were nearly shot the day before, he'd decided it was too much, too dangerous and it should stop. But he doesn't want to work with anyone else. And the two of you make a fine team. So, unless you want to stop, want to give up your informal role as his partner, well, then nothing's changed, Sandburg. He just needed to let off some steam, that's all."

Blair blew a long, slow breath and then raked his hair back off his face. "Thanks," he said, his voice low and still shaky. "For making sure I understood that. That, uh, that you really aren't fed up with having me hanging around."

Simon's mouth quirked in a wry smile and he rolled his eyes as he fondly clipped Blair's head. "That's way too self-effacing, Sandburg," he growled. "Like you'd care if I was fed up with having you around. You'll be there so long as you think Jim needs you. I know it, you know it -- and one of these days, he'll relax and accept it. So, I expect you to stop making like a runaway and go home when the show is over this afternoon -- and I expect you to be at my place for dinner tomorrow and to at least pretend you enjoy whatever Daryl and I manage to cook up. You got that?"

Huffing a laugh, Blair nodded. "Yeah, I got it," he said with a small smile. "Thanks, Simon."

Banks snorted as he turned Blair toward the door. "Just doing my bit to keep my men focused and performing to their best potential. That's what I get paid for, Sandburg, so don't go thinking this little chat was anything special."

Blair chuckled at that. "No, we sure wouldn't want anyone to mistakenly think you'd go out of your way to make me feel better, that's for sure," he teased. "Would ruin your image."

"Damn straight, kid," Simon growled. "You tell anyone about this little chat and you're dead meat." Relenting, he studied the younger man. "Seriously. You okay now?"

"I'm good, Simon," Blair confirmed and sighed, smiling. "I need to think about some of what you said, but yeah, I'm okay."

Banks patted him on the shoulder and strode away, mission accomplished. Sandburg looked at his retreating back and slowly shook his head. In a million years, he wouldn't have expected Simon to care enough to intervene and make things right but then he shook his head, realizing those thoughts were manifestly unfair. As bombastic and tough as Banks liked to appear, he was a sensitive man who truly cared about his people and even more about his friends. For the first time, Blair realized that so far as Simon was concerned, he fit into both categories and that thought made him feel good, really good.

He wasn't sure, though, that he could so easily accept everything Banks had said, or let himself off the hook completely for the mistakes he'd made in the recent past. But he could accept that he'd been doing his best at the time, hadn't deliberately screwed up. Sure in hell hadn't deliberately set out to put Janet in danger. And Simon was absolutely right about her, about the kind of person she'd been. Maybe ... maybe it wasn't entirely his fault that she'd been killed. Maybe, some day, he really would be able to forgive himself for that.

Heading back to the rink for the rest of the morning's practice, Blair realized he felt lighter inside, relieved to have his anxieties laid to rest, to know that neither Jim nor Simon thought badly of him -- and eager to go back home when the day's show was over. As he went back out onto the ice, he was thinking that he was really going to have to work on Jim's tendency to worry too much, and to take too much responsibility for the choices that Blair made about how to live his own life.

Sure, there were definitely risks to hanging around with Jim. Laughing to himself, he reflected that that was obvious and had been from day one. But so far as Blair was concerned, those risks were well worth taking because the rewards -- of finding his Sentinel, of working with Jim and of the friendship that had grown between them, and the happiness he knew in the home they shared -- were literally awesome, exceeding even his wildest dreams.

Joy bubbled in his chest and when he skated out to Amelie, he was radiant, literally glowing with exuberance, fully alive and in love with life.

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

About an hour after Banks returned to the office, just before noon, the call came in from the Vancouver Police Department. Jim scribbled notes as he listened, and gave his fax number to have the details sent immediately to his attention. Hanging up, he rounded his desk and loped to Simon's office. "We've got him," he said.

Looking up, Banks quirked a brow. "He's wanted in Canada?" he observed flatly, the question rhetorical.

"Not exactly," Jim replied, waggling one hand in the air. "The Vancouver PD are, uh, what you might call anxious to question him about a child molestation case from last winter. The victim didn't know the name of her attacker, just that he was someone 'important' in the ice show -- she was one of the local young skaters who participated in last year's Follies. Her description sounds a lot like Perkins. They've got a DNA sample and they think he's probably a match, but by the time they put the pieces together last March, the Follies had returned to the States and he was out of reach when all they had were suspicions. Apparently there are more cases in Vancouver and other western Canadian cities that they think he may also be tied to, but this one is their best bet for nailing him. There's a watch at the border to pull him in the next time he sets foot in Canada."

"No wonder he isn't eager to go back there," Simon grated. "Good work, Jim." Looking up at the clock, he shook his head. "He may be wanted for questioning in Canada but we don't have anything definitive here to warrant an arrest. We're going to have to get the DA in on this and probably the State Department -- not going to be easy, this late on Christmas Eve. It's going to take time to get all the pieces in play, and meanwhile, I'd like to have him locked up. We can probably work something in terms of extradition and reciprocity, but that's the DA's job -- see if they'll support asking a judge to issue a warrant to pull him in now, pending getting the details worked out when D.C. opens again for business after the holiday."

"I'm on it," Jim affirmed briskly, hastening back to his desk.

An hour an a half later, Ellison was tangled in red tape and growing hoarse from making his case that he wasn't trying to violate a citizen's inalienable and fundamental human rights as much as he was attempting to get a probable child molester and someone suspected of assault and attempted murder off the streets, not to mention ensuring positive international relations with the United States' closest neighbor and trading partner. Simon stopped by his desk, overcoat over his arm, and shook his head as he listened to Jim's side of yet another in what seemed to be an endless stream of telephone conversations. Ellison looked as though his temper was close to blowing. When Jim looked up and rolled his eyes in frustration, Banks told him, "I'm going to the arena to keep an eye on Perkins. If you get the warrant, meet me there with a couple of uniforms." Jim nodded and continued his verbal tussle with the bureaucrats at City Hall.

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

Janey and Tommy arrived at the Cascade Arena just before the matinee was scheduled to begin. Flashing their identification as employees of the Ice Follies, they gained entrance to the sold-out show. Steering clear of the seats set aside for Perkins and his guests, if any, they hurried around the concrete apron behind the boards toward the locker rooms. The stands were dark, all the lights now focused on the rink and the music was building, swelling to fill the cavernous space. Crew and skaters thronged the shadowed tunnels leading to the rink, so focused on the imminent show that no one really noticed them. Skaters in glittering, sequined costumes with plumed headdresses started forward, moving quickly to spill onto the ice for the grand opening spectacle, leaving only the principal skaters in the wings, waiting for their cues.

Amelie was the first to become aware of their approach, her mouth falling open in stunned shock. "Oh, my God, Tommy!" she gasped, tears filling her eyes as she opened her arms and he pulled her into a hard hug.

Startled by her soft, impassioned cry, Blair looked around and a huge smile lit his face when he saw Janey. "Coach!" he exclaimed, moving to draw her into his arms. "I didn't think you'd make it!"

"Couldn't miss this, kid; we've both waited too long," she replied, her throat thick, returning his embrace in full measure. "I hear you're knocking them dead."

Bowing his head, he kissed her temple and whispered hoarsely, "Thanks for being here, Janey."

And then the music swirled into their cue. Blair and Amelie broke away to launch themselves into the spotlights that glimmered on their silken costumes, his brilliant blue, and hers of gold.

Janey and Tommy stood just inside the tunnel entrance, both of them grinning broadly as they watched the show unfold.

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

Leaning in the darkness of a tunnel across the rink, Simon watched Perkins, his eyes narrowing when he realized the man was nearly vibrating with nervous tension. Frowning, he chewed his lip, wondering why, because the man couldn't know the net was closing around him. Glancing around the arena, he spotted Brown on the opposite corner, and Rafe up at the top of the stairs leading down to where Perkins sat. Both were still in their staff security garb and Perkins was paying no attention to them, so they hadn't been spotted as cops. Banks checked the time on his wristwatch and then crossed his arms. If they didn't get a warrant, they were going to have to keep the man under surveillance for as long as the show remained in Cascade -- because, if they were right and he was desperate to close down the show before going into Canada after New Year's, and he was rigging an insurance fraud to ensure no loss of income, then he was going to be forced into action sometime in the next week.

Looking out over the ice, Simon wondered what Perkins would pull next to put the show on the rails. Blair swept down the rink, hair flying, eyes dancing and Banks felt a shiver of apprehension, very worried that Sandburg would be the next target.

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

Blair changed rapidly from the blue costume into Peter Pan's elfin green, and scrunched his hair up under the perky cap. He was already moving back toward the ice as he buckled on the belt with the plastic cutlass in the scabbard.

Under the lights, he pantomimed perpetual youth incarnate, an irresistible imp who flirted equally with the spotlight that was Tinkerbell and Wendy as he seduced her away from her inherent sense of responsibility to follow him on a wondrous journey to Neverland. The clowns drew raucous laughter as they tussled and tumbled as exuberant boys or gormless pirates, and then the mood darkened when Captain Hook made his appearance. Innocence became overshadowed with evil and 'Peter' was soon caught in battle, risking his life to save his boys and Wendy. Caught in the fantasy, the crowd was mesmerized by the flashing silver-painted blades and the intensity of a conflict as old as time.

Once Hook was defeated and peace and innocence restored, the principals and clowns swept off the ice and the chorus returned to captivate with intricate, precision skating as members of a royal court, setting up the scene for Amelie as the Princess falling asleep under the evil spell. Blair returned to the ice as the Prince that would awaken her, now garbed in rich, colorful tunic and tights, a light golden crown banded around his mane of burnished curls and a saber at his waist. The 'dragon' was an impressive construction requiring four skaters to coordinate their movements and, when it snorted smoke and blew fire, the children in the audience squealed with alarmed delight. The Prince evaded singeing by skirting around trees that had been rolled onto the ice in the darkness between scenes, and by whipping around the beast, launching into whirling leaps and skidding to duck under the flames. His sword flashed as he did courageous battle and triumphed before sweeping into the castle compound at the far end of the rink, to awaken the Princess with a kiss.

The next routine was the purview of the clowns, playing out the three little pigs and the wolf who loved to blow their houses down.

Enjoying the respite of the comical routine before the intermission, Blair hovered in the shadows with Janey and Tommy, Amelie pressed to his side. Sensing movement out of the corner of his eye, Sandburg squinted toward the far end of the arena and saw Jim waiting against the light of the outer refreshment corridor, two uniformed cops standing beside him. Blowing a low whistle, he touched Janey's arm and inclined his head toward Ellison. She nodded, her shoulders tensing, understanding as he did what was about to go down. By the time the pigs and wolf left the rink and the house lights came on, they were already making their way along the concrete apron, Tommy and Amelie in tow, to witness the arrest.

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

Jim nodded to Simon as he descended the last few steps, the patrolmen behind him. Banks moved out of the shadows while Brown shifted to cover the far end of the row of seats, blocking any attempt that Perkins might make to elude arrest. The promoter seemed oblivious, his attention on the ice and his fingertips tapping a nervous tattoo on the arm of his seat.

"Lyle Perkins?" Jim said. When Perkins looked up, at first confused as he tried to place Jim's face and then wary, apparently remembering him as a detective he met in Seattle, Ellison continued, "I have a warrant for your arrest for assault, attempted murder and conspiracty to perpetrate insurance fraud. You have the right to remain silent ...."

Perkins gaped at him and then stood, protesting loudly that it was all ridiculous, that he'd done nothing wrong.

"Save it for downtown," Jim told him bluntly, spinning him around to cuff his wrists. When he turned Perkins to hand him over to the patrolmen for transport and booking, he saw the man gaping at something over his shoulder. Looking around, Jim saw Blair and Janey, Tommy and the girl he presumed was Amelie. "Ah, yes," he mused with an ironic tone, "I guess you didn't know that Tom Tarkington is no longer among the missing."

Pale with shock, Perkins swallowed hard, evidently deciding to remain mute until he engaged a lawyer. He looked back over the ice and up into the rafters, shaking his head as one of the uniformed cops took his arm and marched him up the cement steps.

"So you were right," Jim heard Blair say behind him. "He was trying to avoid going back into Canada."

"Yeah," Ellison grunted, turning. "Child molestation case from early last spring. They've got DNA and want to see if he matches. He would have been picked up when he crossed the border."

"What a disgusting man," Janey grated, her features tight with revulsion.

Simon introduced himself to her and her son and waved to the vacant seats. "Well, I guess we can all relax and enjoy the rest of the show. It'll take Mr. Perkins a while to find a lawyer on Christmas Eve and he didn't look inclined to talk without counsel."

Jim wasn't paying attention -- frowning thoughtfully, he was gazing at the ice and then at the rafters, but was distracted when Blair spoke at his elbow. "Good job, man. He almost got away with everything."

Flicking his friend a look, Jim nodded. "Yeah, I guess he did." He hesitated briefly, and then observed, his voice tight as he gazed meaningfully around the arena, "So, uh, I guess you can come in from the cold."

"Uh huh," Sandburg agreed, also looking out over the rink. "Tommy figures he'll be able to do the shows next week, so this is my last hurrah." He sighed and then lightly slapped Jim's back as he added, "Well, I better go get ready for the last half of the show. Catch ya later."

Ellison's expression was guarded as he watched Sandburg walk away. He took a deep breath and his jaw tightened, and he wondered if Blair would be returning to the loft after the show -- or if there was still too much anger and hurt between them. Rubbing his hand over his mouth, he turned away, again studying the empty rink, feeling unsettled and worried, as if he was missing something. Biting his lip, thinking about it, he told himself that a good measure of his twitchy distraction was probably due to too much adrenaline in his system, having been ready for Perkins to put up some fight rather than go as quietly as he had. But, grimacing unhappily, he knew he was only lying to himself and slowly shook his head as his gaze again sought Blair's retreating back. Sighing heavily, acknowledging at least to himself that his continuing anxiety was purely attributable to the unresolved conflict between himself and Sandburg, he rolled his shoulders, trying to loosen up. He had to believe they'd be able to sort everything out after the show.

"Jim? You going to join us?" Simon asked, waving to the empty seat beside him.

"Uh, no, sir," Ellison replied, his gaze dancing around the arena. "I feel a bit restless. I think I'll just wander around, maybe watch from the back."

"Suit yourself," Banks shrugged amiably, settling back as the lights flickered to signal that the show was about to resume.

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

The clowns took the ice at the beginning of the second half of the show, presenting a series of short vignettes involving Hansel and his sister dropping bread crumbs through the forest, Little Red Riding Hood evading her wolfish grandmother and seven dwarfs trooping home from a hard day's work in the mine. And then the lights came down and the music shifted; the spotlight found the beautiful Belle and the story of her adventure with the Beast began.

Jim stood at the top of the staircase, a smile crooking the corner of his mouth as he watched Sandburg lumber on as the aggressively unhappy Beast. The kid really was something; he had a kind of magic when he was out there on the ice, as if he was a whole other person, someone Jim didn't really know at all. That thought banished the smile, leaving him feeling somber, once again filled with regret for his careless words, and irritation that Sandburg could be so ... so pig-headed as to refuse to discuss it all and clear the air. Hell, usually, Blair was the one who nagged him into talking things out.

Crossing his arms, his mind drifted ahead, remembering how the scene would be playing out, anticipating the magic of the transformation from wounded Beast to the Prince.

He stilled, his gut clenching, his sense of that runaway train barreling down upon them a physical, tangible certainty of impending danger. His lips parted and his eyes narrowed as he recalled Perkins' last look at the rink and the rafters. "Oh my God," he gasped, his gaze searching the shadows above the rink, seeking the winch -- searching for the fastest way to get up there and check it out.

And then he was running, pounding into the internal service corridors and up the daunting switchback of twelve flights of metal risers to the narrow catwalks above. Below him, the abbreviated fairytale built to the battle between the boorish huntsman, Gaston, and the misunderstood Beast, and the two characters battled around and over set pieces designed to create the illusion of the castle. Finally gaining the metal catwalk, Jim raced along its length even as Belle was bending over the mortally wounded beast, her mournful and compelling gestures a cover as she hooked the thin, virtually invisible line to the hook in the back of Blair's costume and loosened the fastenings of the costume so that the 'Beast' would peel off and drop away easily when Sandburg was hoisted into the air.

Jim opened his vision wide, straining to see the line in the darkness made darker by the brightness of the lights below. The winch started to turn, controlled remotely by technicians in a control booth at the far end of the arena, high above the crowd, pulling Sandburg up and off the ice.

And then he saw it. The thin, thin line of finely twisted steel had been cut nearly through and the single remaining strand was stretching thinly between the inexorably turning winch and Sandburg's dangling weight, strained further as Blair twisted and twirled in the flare of the light and shadow, the glitter of fireworks. Jim was nearly there when the winch stopped, and Ellison knew that his partner was now dangling more nearly twenty feet above the hard ice and the wooden structure of the castle's balcony. A fall from that height, if he landed wrong -- Jim forced away sickening images of Blair's back bending unnaturally over the wooden railing, crashing through it, of Blair's skull hitting the ice with the dull thunk of a splitting melon. There was no time for fear, no time ... no time for anything except to somehow break the fall.

He pulled on his glove as he skidded to his knees by the winch. Reaching out over the edge, he gripped the line about three feet below the straining bit of wire and then, breathing deeply, pulling in oxygen, he hooked his right arm around the narrow strut on the edge of the catwalk. He'd barely gotten a grip, was scarcely anchored, when the thin last strand snapped. The sudden pull of Sandburg's dead weight jerked him forward and he clenched his jaw, straining to hang on as he was pulled off the walkway, dangling over empty space. Biting back the urge to cry out at the sharp, ripping pain in his left shoulder, the cords and muscles of his neck, shoulders, back and chest straining, flushed with effort, he slowly let the cord slip through his leather-covered hand, the friction hot and slicing like a knife. He strained to stretch down, his right elbow protesting the pressure against the metal strut. He let slip more and a little more, easing Sandburg toward the ice, knowing he was only buying the kid a few feet, a few precious feet, but maybe enough that the fall would bruise but not break. The last of the wire slipped through his desperate grasp, the sharp, frayed ends dragging like razors and he felt the burn, knew he'd been cut.

Panting, nearly afraid to look, he searched the rink below and saw the spotlight on Blair. The kid was sprawled awkwardly on the ice, a look of stunned startlement and shocked confusion in his eyes, his skin pallid in reaction to the sharp, sudden fall. But then Sandburg blinked and his eyes focused, and he was back into his role, playing out the scene. Pressing his eyes closed in relief, Jim swallowed against the pain that ravaged his body, searing through a shoulder he was pretty sure was dislocated, radiating through his neck and back. His left hand throbbed and he could feel the warmth of his blood, knew it was soaking into the thick, sheepskin-lined glove. Keeping his elbow locked around the strut, his right hand fumbled and fisted around the edge of the catwalk, holding on in a death grip. There was no way he could pull himself back up to safety. He just had to hold on until someone noticed he was up there -- or fall.

Seconds seemed like minutes, minutes like hours, the pain blindingly intense. He struggled with his dials but couldn't focus well enough, couldn't think past the blistering agony as his weight dragged on his right arm. Hanging nearly two hundred feet above the ice, he could only clench his teeth against the urge to scream out for help; no one would hear him anyway over the music that filled the arena. He could only endure. Someone would notice -- someone had to notice -- that he was in deadly peril. Hopefully, someone would notice soon, very soon.

Because he couldn't hang on forever.

And when he finally lost it, lost consciousness or zoned on the pain, he'd lose his grip and drop ....

Tears burned in his eyes as the agony grew worse, increasingly unbearable. "God, Chief," he grated hoarsely through gritted teeth when despair threatened to swamp him. "Look up. Please, God, look up."

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

Below, the Prince and his Beauty waltzed off the ice, and the sugarplum fairies swept onto the rink. A lightning fast costume change and Blair and Amelie were back, playing their roles in the show-stopping grand finale. Seven minutes later, the skaters swept off the ice and then back on to thunderous applause. The stars of the show, Amelie and then Blair returned last to tumultuous acclaim.

Sandburg's smile was luminous, and his eyes were sparkling, incandescent with joy as he swept across the ice, pirouetting and launching into whirling leaps one last time for the crowd.

But as he landed, skating backward, bowing low, his gaze caught the bright splash of crimson on the crystalline whiteness of the ice. And another splot ... and another ... falling out of thin air from the shadows high above. Alarmed, he remembered the odd jerk of the line supporting him, the sharp fall through the last eight feet of air, but he'd thought it only the line giving way. His skating now on autopilot, his gaze raked the darkness above and then the arena -- and with shuddering realization, he grasped the significance of the empty seat beside Simon. Frantic now, a sick hollowness in his gut, he broke from the smooth, choreographed closing routine and skated swiftly across the ice toward Banks, yelling, "Where's Jim?"

Banks scowled and stiffened, Sandburg's palpable fear contagious, and he whirled to look up to where Jim had been standing when the second half had begun. Blair skidded into the boards, shouting and pointing toward the roof, "Shit! He's up there! In the rafters! Simon -- he's hurt! There's blood on the ice!"

And then Banks, Brown and Rafe were racing across the concrete apron and into the nearest tunnel, heading for the stairs. Janey gaped at him and looked up, squinting against the lights, and the blood drained from her face at what she finally saw. Fighting off shock and an urge to panic, she fumbled with her bag, dragging out a cell phone to call '911'.

The crowd and the rest of the company of skaters, sensing something was badly amiss, faltered into stillness and silence. The technicians, picking up on Sandburg's gestures toward the rafters above center rink, flicked switches and lights caught the man dangling high above. Most people gasped, some screamed, parents shielded their children's eyes and looked for the fastest way out -- afraid of what their children might witness if they lingered.

Blair stared up at Jim, his lips parted as he dragged in air, terrified. "Hold on, man," he grated, his voice low and raw. "Jesus, Jim. Hold on." He felt frozen in horror, not knowing what to do, how to help, if he could help. Afraid of distracting Jim by calling out, afraid to not cry out with encouragement to help his Sentinel to focus and not zone on the lights now barraging him brutally. Not zone and lose his grip.

And then he was tearing at the laces of his skates, yanking them off. He leapt over the low, half wall and raced toward the stairs to the rafters above. As he lunged up the steps, he called, his voice pitched low and as steady as he could make it, "Help's on the way, Jim. Almost there. You just have to hold on a little longer man. I know it's hard. But you can do this, Jim. You can do this. Dial down the pain. Dial it way down. And dial down sight. I know the lights are blinding. You can hold on, Jim. Simon's nearly there. You're not going to fall, man. You are not going to fall!"

Above, Simon pelted along the catwalk, Brown and Rafe fast on his heels, all of them perspiring fiercely and panting for breath. When they reached Jim, Banks dropped flat and snapped to Rafe, "You, grab hold of his arm and don't let him go. Brown, hold my legs. I'm going to pull him up."

Easing out, focusing on Ellison and not on the dizzying drop into empty space, Simon lowered his voice, reaching for calm, as he said, "Jim, we're here. I'm going to grab you under your arms and pull you up. Rafe's got hold of you, and won't let go. We'll have you back up here before you know it." With Brown anchoring him, he slid over and down to wrap his long, strong arms around his best friend. Jim cried out sharply at the pressure under his shoulders and sagged, losing consciousness, only Rafe's grip on his arm and Simon's embrace holding him above the ground.

"Pull me up," Banks ordered urgently. "Easy," he snapped when Brown and Rafe jerked him backward, the edge of the metal walk digging into his chest. As smoothly and quickly as possible, grunting with the effort, they hauled him back and then reached to help him draw Jim to safety. Shaken with how close it had been, queasy, none of them heard the wild cheering or thunderous applause that broke out from the audience watching breathlessly below.

Sandburg skidded to a stop next to them, falling to his knees beside Jim to cradle Ellison's head in his lap. "Where's he bleeding from?" he grated, flashing at look at the others.

"His glove is sodden with blood," Brown muttered and carefully peeled the leather off Jim's hand, while Simon rubbed his sore arms, feeling chilled with shock, and Rafe stood anxiously watching. "Oh, man," Henri groaned in sympathy, "his hand is cut pretty badly." Blair winced and swallowed against the bile burning the back of his throat at the sight of the raw wound.

Brian pulled off his tie and handed it to his partner. "Bind it with this," he said tightly.

"I think his shoulder is dislocated," Simon rumbled. Looking around dazedly, staring briefly at the thin metal strut Jim had anchored himself to, Banks shook his head, wondering how Ellison had managed to hold on so long. "We need to get him down."

"I've got him," Brown said shortly, carefully drawing Jim up with Blair's help, to position his colleague over his shoulder in a fireman's lift.

Rafe went ahead, to steady Brown down the steep risers, with Banks immediately behind, ready to lend a hand if necessary. Sandburg stood looking down at the ice, thinking about how Jim had somehow figured out the threat and had resolutely held him, his life, in one strong hand. Jim had risked his own life to save him from a fall that could have done a lot of damage -- might even have killed him. Overwhelmed, dazed with the enormity of what his friend had done, unable to imagine the pain Jim had endured, or the desolate, desperate fear as he'd dangled over thin air, Blair turned and stumbled after them.

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

The ambulance had arrived by the time they got Ellison back down to ground level. Though some of the crowd had left, most had stayed, caught up in what many murmured was a Christmas Eve miracle. When the men came through the tunnel, clapping and cheering again broke out while the EMTs helped Brown shift Jim down onto the gurney. Ignoring the tumult of the crowd, the medics swiftly set up an intravenous drip and applied a small pressure dressing to his wounded hand. And then they were bearing the Ellison up the long flight of cement steps, Blair striding alongside. Focused on Jim's pallid face, struck by the lines of pain deeply etched around his friend's eyes and mouth despite his continuing unconsciousness, Blair was unaware of anyone or anything else around him.

On the floor of the arena, Banks briefly looped his arms around Brown's and Rafe's shoulders and then slapped them heartily on the back. "Good work, men," he commended them quietly. Looking around at the crowd, and the skaters still congregated in quiet groups on the ice, he glanced up at the rafters, still shaken by what might have been. "It's over," he rumbled, half to himself and half to them, "and everyone's alive." Returning his gaze to theirs, he went on, "Jim's going to be fine and it's Christmas Eve. Go home and enjoy the holiday. I'll see you both next week."

Feeling slightly disoriented, Rafe and Brown exchanged glances and Brian nodded, mutely agreeing that they both badly needed a chance to let go of the fear for Jim's life that still vibrated in their guts. "C'mon, partner," Brian said, "buy me a drink to celebrate Christmas."

"Absolutely, babe," Henri replied, dredging up a wobbly grin as he slung an arm around his best friend's shoulders, "right after you buy me one."

"Sounds like a plan," Rafe responded with an amiable nod, and then said to Banks, "Merry Christmas, sir."

"Yeah," Brown agreed. "Hope you and Daryl have a good one." He hesitated, his gaze straying to the catwalk above, and then said in tones heavy with respect and admiration, "You were great up there, Captain, the way you never hesitated to slide over the edge to take hold of him."

Simon's lips thinned at the emotion evoked more by the tone than the words; his chest felt tight, and he nodded as he swallowed. "No big deal," he replied with the ghost of a smile. "I knew you wouldn't let me fall."

Caught by surprise by the unexpected response, Brown stood a little taller, and smiled speechlessly, deeply touched by the simple confidence in his superior's tone. Rafe glanced at him fondly, knowing how much the Captain's words meant to his partner. Brown played the clown but underneath the jokes and pranks, he was both profoundly committed to his job and also inordinately proud to be on Captain Banks' team. Such quiet, solid affirmation, such acknowledgement that his own personal hero had no hesitation about trusting his life to him, would mean the world to him. "C'mon, buddy," he said, jostling Henri with his elbow. "Let's go celebrate -- right after we ditch these godawful uniforms."

Banks and Brown both laughed -- as Rafe had known they would -- at his chagrined disgust at the truly grim clothing, lightening the mood, and then the two partners started up the steps, joining the crowd that was finally making their way home. Simon smiled after them and then turned to find Janey Tarkington at his elbow, Tommy and Amelie standing a short distance away.

"You really think Jim will be fine?" she asked, searching his eyes.

"Yes, I do," he replied reassuringly. "Oh, he'll be sore for a while, but his injuries aren't serious."

Closing her eyes briefly, she nodded and swallowed. And then, her gaze sweeping the rink, she said hoarsely, "When I called Blair for help last week, I never thought that I'd be putting their lives in danger." Blinking back the tears that burned in her eyes, she murmured, "Such brave men. A bit frightening, actually, the risks they're prepared to take." Drawing in a deep breath, willfully regaining her aura of self-possession, she straightened her shoulders and went on briskly, "Blair's keys will be with his things here. Tommy and I will clear out his locker and his room at the hotel. We'll take everything and his car back to their apartment and I'll take his keys to him at the hospital later."

"Thanks, that'll be a great help," he replied warmly. He was about to move on when he paused and said, "My son and I were going to have Jim and Blair join us for dinner tomorrow night, but I guess that'll have to be postponed until Sunday, to give Jim a chance to recover. Would you and Tommy care to join us?"

Surprised, pleased by the unexpected invitation, she smiled and nodded. "I'd be delighted, thank you." Glancing back over her shoulder, she leaned closer and confided with low, indulgent, parental amusement, "Tommy is hoping Amelie's parents will invite him to join in their weekend celebrations."

Chuckling, well understanding the realities of sons and girlfriends, he grinned. "Well, if his plans don't work out, bring him along. There'll be plenty of food." They settled on the details and then Simon glanced at his watch. "I'm going to head over to the hospital. And then I suppose I'll have to go back to the office to see if Perkins has found himself a lawyer. I'll see you on Sunday." When she turned away to take care of Sandburg's belongings, he loped up the stairs. Though he'd reassured everyone that Jim would be fine, he wouldn't rest easy until he'd heard the doctor say the same thing.

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

When Simon arrived at the hospital, he found Sandburg standing rigidly in the waiting lounge, glaring at the closed doors that blocked entry to the treatment rooms beyond. An incongruous figure in his skimpy skating getup, he was fairly vibrating with frustration, his arms crossed tightly, and one unshod foot was tapping anxiously. More than a little surprised that Blair wasn't with Jim, he asked, "What are you doing out here?"

Blair's hands flew in agitation as he wheeled around and exclaimed with barely contained angry sarcasm. "They wouldn't let me in! Threatened to have me removed by Security if I didn't 'settle down and wait'! You've got to get me in there, Simon. They'll listen to you."

"Why? You think he needs you with him?" Banks probed with deliberate provocation, remembering Jim's dejection earlier that day when he'd reported that, amongst other things, Sandburg didn't seem to think he needed the kid's help anymore.

"Of course he needs me with him!" Blair hissed, gaping up at Simon as if he couldn't believe the question. "He could be zoning! And even if he's not, when he wakes up his senses are going to be all over the map. And, on top of that, they don't know anything about his sensitivities to medications! They might give him -- I don't know, whatever -- and he won't wake up for a week! Besides all that, I'm his partner, dammit. I have a right to be in there!"

"Yes, you do," Simon replied with a firm nod. "I just wanted to know that you knew that." When Blair blinked and squinted at him, not understanding, he shrugged and explained, "Jim told me you didn't think he needs you around anymore. I don't know how he could have gotten such an idea, do you?"

Chagrined, Blair looked away and shook his head. "Okay, you made your point," he grumbled. "I've been acting like an ass." Gesturing toward the closed doors, he urged plaintively, "Can you just get me in there?"

"Yes, I think I can manage that," Banks replied with a smug smile, shouldering open the swinging door and beckoning at Sandburg to follow him.

Moments later, Banks was flashing his badge and demanding information on how his detective was doing, while Blair studied Jim, who was stripped to the waist, already being transfused with blood.

Irritated by the interruption, the dyspeptic, somewhat disheveled and unshaven doctor looked up from his examination of Ellison's hand and snapped arrogantly, "Aside from a nasty cut on his left hand, a dislocated left shoulder which I've already reduced, massive bruising and swelling of his right arm, evidently much abused muscles in his both arms and shoulders, and fairly significant blood loss, he's just dandy."

Vastly unimpressed with the physician's attitude, Banks reared up to his full height and, eyes snapping, he snarled, "I mean this will all due respect, Doctor, but cut the crap. That man's a hero who came too damned close to dying today saving someone else's life. So let's try this again, shall we? Just how bad is that cut on his hand? Is there nerve damage? And how serious are his other injuries? Why is he still unconscious? How long is he going to be laid up and what does he need to recover?"

They glared at one another briefly, neither used to being challenged, and then the doctor shrugged, evidently deciding the confrontation wasn't worth his time. Replying somewhat less aggressively but with no less arrogance, he told them with an air of forced forbearance and chilly clinical detachment, "The cut looks worse than it is. I don't see any evidence of permanent damage, but there is danger of infection from the fibers in the wound. I'm about to clean and stitch it up. He won't be able to use the hand for at least a week, to allow the tissues to heal. To prevent any further strain on his joints, muscles and ligaments while they're healing, both arms and shoulders will have to be immobilized for eight to ten days. After that, his personal physician will determine if he needs any physical training to restore strength and resilience. As for why he's still unconscious," he shrugged with little evident concern, "I suspect because of shock and blood loss. He should be waking up soon. We'll keep him overnight. If he's got help at home, he can leave in the morning. If not, we'll transfer him to Parkhills Rehab for care while his ability to care for himself is constrained."

"He's got help at home," Blair stated firmly. "No way is he going to Parkhills."

"Fine."

"Before you give him any medication, you need to know Jim has a lot of sensitivities and allergies," Sandburg said then, his voice tight with resentment of the doctor's abrupt manner.

"Good of you to let us know that before we inadvertently killed him. And you would be who exactly?"

"Blair Sandburg, his partner at the PD and his roommate."

Eying Blair's loose, deep blue silk shirt, indigo tights and shoeless feet, the man quirked a brow as if thinking the new police attire was distinctly odd, or that perhaps this was simply how roommates dressed these days. "Ah, yes, of course," he said with a faint, disparaging smirk.

"Medications?" Sandburg prompted icily.

"A local anesthetic before suturing his wound, muscle relaxants to relieve the cramping muscles in his shoulders and back, an antibiotic to forestall infection, and an order for painkillers for when he wakes up," he replied flatly. "Any problems with any of that, partner and roommate?"

"Maybe," Sandburg retorted. They spent a few snappish minutes coming to agreement on the specific medications Ellison could tolerate and then the doctor nodded briskly as he directed the nurse assisting him to prepare the injections.

Giving Simon and Blair a cold look, he told them, "He'll be taken upstairs in twenty minutes. You can either wait here or outside while I finish with him. Suit yourselves."

"I'll wait here," Sandburg replied tightly.

"And I'll be heading back downtown."

Nodding briefly, without further ado the doctor dismissed them from his attention. After injecting the tissue around the cut, he pulled on a pair of sterile, plastic gloves and began flushing the raw wound with a large syringe filled with a saline solution.

Lifting a sardonic brow, Banks leaned down and murmured with soft sarcasm, "Maybe he resents having to work on Christmas Eve."

"Evidently," Sandburg replied caustically, rolling his eyes.

Satisfied that things were under control, Simon told him, "Call me when he wakes up." Turning to go, he slowed and added, "By the way, Janey is looking after getting your car and your stuff from the arena and hotel back to the loft. She'll bring your keys in later. Oh, and I figure Jim isn't going to feel much like socializing tomorrow, so we'll shift dinner to Sunday night, and she's going to join us."

"Uh, that's great, thanks," Blair replied, distracted, his attention focused on Jim and what the doctor was doing. "I'll call you later." Briefly glancing up at Banks, wide eyes dark with anxious worry and still shadowed with shock at how easily Jim might have died that day, he rasped with hoarse gratitude, "Thanks for getting me in here, Simon."

Banks nodded and patted him on the shoulder. "Relax, Sandburg. He's going to be okay," he soothed before taking his leave.

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

'Relax'. Good advice, Blair thought miserably as Simon left, but he couldn't seem to let go of the stark emotions and jumbled thoughts that held him captive as he studied Jim's death-like pallor and lifeless stillness. He was deeply worried about the continuing signs of relentless pain, despite unconsciousness, around his partner's eyes and mouth. Inside his head, Sandburg kept seeing the sickening vision of Jim clinging to the catwalk high above the rink. His stomach did another flip-flop and, feeling cold and shaky, he leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms for warmth and to still his trembling hands. He stared at the ugly wound across the palm of Jim's left hand, knowing why it was there, how it had happened, remembering the jerk he'd felt while spinning more than fifteen feet above the ice, the quicker, shuddering sort of descent until halfway down when the line had given way and he'd dropped; he understood now that Jim had caught him, held him, lowered him to a safe height before letting go, while hanging off the edge of that walkway ....

Dropping his head, Sandburg forced himself to concentrate on taking slower, deeper breaths. Jim hadn't fallen. Was here. Safe. Would be all right. Which was good, because then Blair could kill him personally for being so reckless, so goddamned brave and doing such a stupid, insane thing.

For him.

The guy who had been avoiding Jim for more than a week because his feelings had been hurt.

The so-called friend who wouldn't even commit to being around for Christmas.

The partner who'd taken off with no discussion, gone undercover without discussing options with anyone, and had gotten into a situation where Jim had ... had ... nearly ... nearly ... d-d-di ....

Once again, trying hard not to think too much, he focused on slowing down his breathing.

"You planning on holding the wall up for the rest of the night, or did you want to go to the room with your partner?" the doctor demanded with harsh sarcasm.

Jerking upright, Sandburg saw that Jim's hand had been bound in a dressing and buckled into a brace to keep the palm and fingers open and immobile. Both his arms were wrapped in athletic supports, light canvas slings with elasticized straps that bound his limbs across his chest, his hands resting high on his chest just below his shoulders. An orderly and a nurse were shifting him onto a stretcher.

Rolling his eyes, the physician strode from the room to attend to his next patient.

"And Merry Christmas to you, too," Blair muttered. "Troll." But he sloughed off the irritation as he held the door open to let the stretcher be pushed into the hallway; if the guy had taken good care of Jim's injuries, and it looked like he had, then that was all that really mattered. Besides, I'm the troll; he's just annoying.

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

Janey and Tommy made short work of gathering Sandburg's possessions together and transporting everything to the loft, her driving Blair's Volvo and Tommy following in their rental car. Upstairs, they carried his skates, suitcase and backpack into his room; on the way back to the door, she noticed the unopened boxes of Christmas decorations in the corner by the balcony window. Shaking her head, she murmured, "Poor guys. They haven't had much of a Christmas this year. Too busy helping us."

Glancing at her son, she cocked an eyebrow.

"Seems only fair," he replied with a cheerful grin.

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

Blair closed the curtains in the room and turned off the lights, leaving peaceful, dim shadows, and then he sank into a chair by the bed to watch his Sentinel. Sighing, he rubbed his face and eyes with both hands and raked his hair off his face. "I'm sorry, man," he whispered, his throat thick.

Leaning back, closing his eyes, he reflected back over the past week, juxtaposing the confusion and despair he'd felt for days with all that had happened in the more than two years since he'd met Jim, in an effort to process everything and get his head straight. Why had the overheard comments hit him so hard? Why hadn't he thumped down the stairs and confronted Jim there and then, instead of being left barely able to think coherently? Why had he jumped to get a job with the Follies before he'd had a clue about what was going on? And why the hell had he given Jim such a continuing hard time for a few statements Ellison hadn't even meant and sure hadn't intended him to hear?

Going after the job was the easiest to face up to. Lots of reasons. On the plus side, he really did hope to find out why Janey had been assaulted, so that was halfway noble, he supposed. But on the down side? It was a self-indulgent and essentially ill-considered gesture to grasp old dreams that didn't even matter anymore, and an excuse not to go back to Cascade, not to face up to everything else, not to deal with Jim.

"Real mature," he grunted with a grimace and shook his head.

So, why didn't I just confront Jim in the first place to thrash out the problems? Bottom line? I guess because I didn't want to know. Didn't want to accept that he was really sick of having me hanging around. The last two years had literally flown by, and Blair knew he hadn't spent a whole lot of time thinking about it all beyond staying focused on doing his best to help and support Jim with his senses and also keep up with his other responsibilities. He hadn't spent any time thinking about when it would all end or what would happen when it did. He'd just reveled in the experiences and in the fun, well, the joy, of becoming Jim's friend and the warmth of having a home that was nicer than any he'd ever known. Now, he realized he'd unconsciously been denying that it would ever end, which was sorta stupid, because of course it would. But he really didn't want it to. Didn't want to stop working with Jim or living at the loft. Didn't want to go back to just being an academic, teacher and researcher. Didn't want to ever lose contact with the best friend he'd ever had. So, basically, Jim's words had been a rude awakening to the exigencies of inevitable reality.

"I love you, man," he murmured, aching with the fullness of his emotion. "Guess I just can't imagine that you'd care as much about me -- actually want me around for, well, who knows for how long?"

It wasn't that Jim wasn't good to him -- he'd given him a home! Or didn't do his best to protect him. God. His best? Thinking again of that afternoon, Blair shook his head. How many times had Jim saved his life in the last two years? Or just very simply stood between him and danger? Practically every damned day, that's how often. And just over a year ago, Jim had taken leave from his own job to nurse him, caring for his every need with a tenderness that still blew Blair away.

No, his doubts weren't grounded in anything Jim had done or not done. It was just that the equation of their friendship was so unequal. So unbalanced. Jim gave so damned much -- everything. And all he got in return was a smart-mouthed grad student who talked his ear off and pretended to know what the hell he was doing when it came to Jim's senses. As much as he'd been excited and exuberant from day one about their deal, their partnership, Blair had also felt he was more burden than use, more irritant than balm. So it was easy, so easy, to believe that Jim would grow tired of his presence, that it was only a matter of time. Like waiting for the shoe to drop. So, despite all the clear evidence of years of friendship, when he'd heard the dreaded irritation and frustration in Jim's voice that day, it had sounded an awful lot like a shoe dropping.

So he'd run. Pure avoidance. A kind of denial. "And I accuse you of repressing shit," he rasped, his lips thin with annoyance directed solely at himself. "God, I am a troll."

Was that also why the overheard comments had hit him so hard? Partly, maybe. But the heaviness in his chest told Blair there was more to it than that. Beyond fearing Jim would weary of his company some day, he had honestly believed the substance of what Jim had said. Because, despite Simon's assurances to the contrary, there was truth in the complaints Jim had listed. A lot of truth. Crossing his arms, Blair bowed his head. Truth that he wished there was more he could do to change. But he wasn't a cop, wasn't trained, so sometimes he was going to screw up out of ignorance or enthusiasm, out of personal conviction -- but, in fairness, mostly, he was making new mistakes rather than repeating old ones. So he was learning. And sure, sometimes he wasn't much more than a tagalong and Jim did just fine. He was getting better all the time at managing his own senses, though they were still discovering new things. Still fine-tuning. And being a tagalong wasn't the same thing as being a burden or annoyance. He was sort of like insurance. You can hope you won't ever need it but it's a good thing to have, just in case. He thought of Janet, then, and his thoughts flinched away, the guilt and grief still too raw to even imagine being able to set it aside.

Looking up at his friend, studying his face, remembering other words from the past week, words and actions that said Jim didn't want their partnership to end, Blair realized that it wasn't really about the truth of whether he was a burden sometimes, or didn't always measure up. And while he'd shaken Jim's trust over withholding information about Orvelle's possible guilt, Jim hadn't withdrawn all trust -- just reamed him out real good. Beyond the truth inherent in Jim's words a week ago were other truths, more important ones. Jim still wanted him around. And Jim was still vulnerable. Still needed him. However inadequate his expertise might be, it was better than hanging out there alone.

That thought made the memories of the afternoon again flash in his mind's eye. His willful intransigence in insisting upon sticking with the company, ostensibly to force something, to draw Perkins out, had sure worked like a charm -- to absolutely no good end beyond the satisfaction of his own pathetic ego. Jim had figured it all out. Had arrested the bastard. Sure, by skating, he'd kept Perkins from shutting down the show -- but even if it had been shut down, it would only have been for a week as things had turned out, because of Jim's great detective skills. Nobody would have lost their jobs in the long run. If he hadn't been so stubborn and had quit the damned job instead of playing undercover cop to prove God knows what, Jim wouldn't have been hanging up there for what? Nearly twenty minutes. How the hell had he done that? How had he endured? Blair's lips trembled and his eyes burned. Leaning forward, covering his face with his hands, he blinked and sniffed and fiercely thanked all the Powers of the Universe that Jim had found the strength in his soul to hang on. To believe that someone would see, would help. Would get to him in time.

Okay, so truth isn't absolute and is both subjective as well as mutable, and there are different truths, and I over-reacted -- was pretty much a jackass, he thought, combing his hair back behind his ears.

Which left the last question. Why had he put Jim through the wringer the last week, after Jim had gone to the trouble of hunting him down, explaining away what he'd heard and then staying to sort out the case? And don't forget the great massages to help him get through those killer first days on the ice. Why had he been such a jerk about Christmas? Even if all his fears had been justified and he lost his observer pass, when Jim had indicated in several different ways that their friendship was intact, why had he refused the olive branches? It was like he'd been punishing Jim -- punishing the guy who gave him a home, watched over his welfare, took care of him when he was sick or hurt. Why would he feel a need to punish Jim by withholding what Jim wanted, especially when it was what he wanted, too? To go home. To be there for Christmas. To remain by Jim's side.

Was it just because his feelings had been hurt? Was he really that petty? Frowning, Blair shook his head. No. He wasn't that self-destructive even if he was capable of being that petty, which he sincerely hoped he wasn't. He'd been punishing himself as much as Jim. Why? Why would he do that to both of them?

We both deserved to be punished because ... he thought and then let his mind drift, allowing the reason to simply surface.

Janet's face emerged, bringing all the guilt and grief ... and anger. She was dead because he'd gotten her involved -- and because Jim had wasted so God-damned much time in a futile search for Incacha that they'd been late, leaving her alone and vulnerable for too long. She wasn't going to celebrate Christmas this year, so why should they be able to enjoy it? She didn't get to have what she wanted out of life -- marriage, a family -- so why should they get what they wanted?

"Ah, shit," he moaned, scrubbing his forehead. They'd never talked about it -- so much had been happening and then Incacha had been murdered, too. He'd put his emotions on hold, buried them -- and they'd just come back to bite him in the ass.

Okay, so deal with them now, he told himself sternly. And then let them go.

Recalling Simon's words from that morning, Blair took his time examining them, weighing them. And he had to accept that Simon had been right. Whether he'd been involved or not, at some point Janet would have acted and she would have been in peril from that moment on. He couldn't take away from her courage and integrity by believing she'd only engaged because he'd asked her. That wasn't either right or respectful of the person she had been. Taking a shuddering breath, he focused on allowing his grief for a friend to be, without encumbering it with guilt. Tears blinded him and his chest tightened; silently, he allowed himself to weep for her for the first time since she'd died. And then he thanked her for having made such an incredible difference in so many ways, and for having given her life to save the jungle and the Chopec who lived in its shelter.

When the tears stopped flowing, he sniffed and wiped his eyes, pulled a tissue from the box on the bedside table and blew his nose. Took several deep, cleansing breaths. Allowed himself to feel bad, but also allowed himself to remember all the good memories, too. Swallowing, he blinked and gazed at Jim. Examining his anger, remembering that night, he looked sightlessly around the darkened room. If they had gone directly to meet her, would it have made a difference? Maybe. But maybe not. She might have been killed within moments of calling him and nothing they could have ever done would have changed the outcome. And even if they could have prevented her death, did Jim deserve his anger for his soul-deep concern for Incacha, a man who had been so many different things to his friend? Incacha had been everything to Jim -- a kind of father figure or older brother, representing compassionate rather than indifferent authority; he had saved Jim's sanity when he'd been lost in that jungle and probably his life, and had helped him when his senses had emerged in the aftermath of the helicopter crash. How could Jim not be frantic about Incacha's well being? Not do his best to find and help the man? How he could begrudge Jim a few lousy minutes to search for one of the best friends Jim had ever had, a rare man of wisdom that Jim had revered above all others? It wasn't like Jim had consciously chosen to put Janet at risk, had been indifferent to her fate. God, in so many ways, it had just been bad luck.

How could he be angry with Jim and want to punish him for that?

He couldn't.

Blair blew a long, slow breath and let the anger go.

Pushing out of the chair, he stood beside the bed and reached out to tenderly stroke Jim's brow, and then drifted his fingertips over the deeply etched lines of pain that marked his partner's face. "I'm sorry, man," he murmured. "You deserve a whole lot better than you've been getting from me lately. But that's going to change as of now. Whatever you need, Jim, I'll do my best for you."

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

Jim still appeared dead to the world when Janey arrived to give Blair his keys, his jacket, and a plastic bag containing a pair of sneakers. Moving quietly into the shadowed room, she asked, "How is he?"

Blair gave a little shrug. "I wish he'd wake up," he replied, becoming worried about the prolonged unconsciousness, wondering if maybe one of the drugs Jim had received was reacting negatively with his system. "But," he went on, as much to assure himself as her, "he's going to be fine. He'll be stiff and sore, and his hand will probably hurt like hell for a couple days, and he's going to really hate having his arms constrained for a week or so -- but he's going to be fine."

"I'm sorry I got the two of you mixed up in this," she sighed.

"Oh, hey, don't ever say that," he hastened to assure her. "That Perkins is a really bad piece of work and he might have gotten away with everything -- not just the assaults, but what he did to that poor kid up in Canada and who knows how many others -- if you hadn't decided to get help to fight back. This," he gestured at Jim, "this wasn't your fault." Studying her, he added meaningfully, "And if Jim hadn't gotten involved, we both know Tommy might not have survived."

"He's a pretty amazing man, isn't he?" she observed, gazing at Jim fondly.

"You have no idea how amazing," Blair murmured with an affectionate smile as he, too, looked down at his partner.

"I didn't get to know him very well when I was here last time," she said. "Tell me about him."

Huffing a laugh, Blair wasn't sure where he could start or how he could ever convey the enormity of Jim's character and how incredibly special he was. "Well," he replied slowly, raking his fingers through his curls, "let's see. Jim's life is based upon service to others, regardless of the risks involved. He was in the Army for a lot of years and even I don't know everything he accomplished in that time, because a lot of it is secret. But I know whatever it was, it was for the good. I've never known anyone with more integrity than he has. As a detective, well, he spends nearly every waking moment going after some pretty scary bad guys, to protect this community, to safeguard the innocent. He's the most courageous man I've ever known."

She smiled. "He seems to think pretty highly of you, too," she mused, remembering her phone conversations with Ellison when Blair had been recovering from horrific injuries; and the man's palpable joy when he knew Blair was fully well again.

"Yes, well, nobody's perfect," Sandburg chuckled, shaking his head. Smiling softly, his voice low, gentle, he told her, "He's the best friend I've ever had, Janey. He made a place for me in his home and, well, he likes to pretend he's this tough guy, you know, but when I was hurt, he was so ... so good to me. He took such great care of me. He's got this core of compassion and tenderness inside that he tries not to show too much, 'cause he thinks real men shouldn't feel so deeply. And, well, a cop can't wear his heart on his sleeve, you know? Can't let things get to him or life would rip his heart out." He paused and then added, "He's got this killer sense of humour. Cracks me right up every time. He's a lot of fun to be around."

"You never told me how the two of you hooked up," Janey encouraged, watching him thoughtfully, seeing more than he might realize he was revealing.

"Well, basically, it's because of my research," he replied matter-of-factly, averting his eyes. "I'm studying the police department as an example of a closed sub-culture for my dissertation. To do that, I had to get 'inside' the community and I got permission to ride around with Jim, to observe him and his colleagues."

A small silence stretched between them as she thought about that, her eyes narrowing skeptically. Whatever Blair was doing riding around, and sharing a home, with Jim Ellison, it wasn't something so prosaic as to study the police department. There was no spark in his voice when he talked about it, none of the vibrant enthusiasm that imbued him when he talked about his dreams -- when he talked about Jim. She almost called him on it, but hesitated. He didn't owe her all his secrets.

Changing the subject, she said warmly, "You were wonderful in the show this afternoon -- extraordinary. Not as great as you were years ago, but damned good. You still love to skate."

He nodded, his gaze slightly out of focus. "Yeah, I do. It was amazing to be able to that after all these years," he admitted. Looking at her, he said, "It was everything I ever dreamed it would be 'way back then. And, well, it was probably all pretty self-indulgent when you get down to it, but I'm glad I had the chance to experience what it was like to be in a big show, to perform in front of so many people -- to feel that energy. It's hard to explain." Sobering, he returned his gaze to Jim. "But I never would have forgiven myself if he'd fallen today. I don't know if I could ever have gotten past that."

"Driving up here this morning," she confided to distract him from his morose reflections, "I was thinking about how incredibly glad I was that, despite the awful things that were going on, you were finally getting to live your dream, and how grateful I was that I'd be able to see that, be some part of it."

Surprised, he met her gaze and smiled. "You're the only one who could really know what it meant to me," he said. "I was really, really glad to see you there today."

"I know you were," she replied, before her gaze fell away. "But, dreams are funny things, aren't they? The ones we have in our youth aren't necessarily, or even often, the dreams we have when we learn more about life and who we want to be in this world." Flicking a glance at him, she went on, "You can tell what a dream means to you, can even see what their dreams mean to other people, in two ways. One is the joy it brings when you work toward its achievement." Looking at Jim, she added soberly, "The other is the sheer terror, the unspeakable despair, that you feel when you think that dream might be lost forever."

Taking a breath, meeting his gaze solemnly, she said, "I know you, Blair Sandburg, maybe as well as anyone ever has in terms of knowing you then and now. I can see the joy when you skate and I saw your grief when you finally accepted that dream wasn't going to happen. And I have to say that those moments pale in comparison with the enthusiasm that radiates from you when you talk about Jim and what you do together -- and I've never seen terror like I saw on your face this afternoon, when you thought you might lose him. Whatever your dream is now, it isn't writing a paper on closed societies."

He flushed and gabbled, "Well, yeah, but like I said, he's my best friend and, uh, the work I get to help with is really important. I mean, it's not like -"

She held up a hand, forestalling any more attempts at his apparently still well-developed tendency toward obfuscation to mislead and confuse. "I'm not asking what your dream is now, or why or how Jim is at the centre of it. I'm just saying that what I thought was so important to you -- skating in that show? -- doesn't hold a candle to the dream you cherish now. And I'm glad of that. Because it looks like, whatever it is, you're living that dream every day. Not many people get to do that; makes me happy to know you're one of them that does."

He looked down, his teeth worrying at his lower lip, but he nodded. "You're right," he told her slowly, looking up to meet her steady gaze with clear candor. "I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world. I do get to live my dream every single day." He smiled then, and pulled her into a hug. "Thanks for caring about me, Coach," he said softly. "Thanks for being happy that I'm really happy with my life just as it is, right now."

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

Jim continued playing possum for nearly fifteen minutes after Janey left. He'd been edging toward consciousness, drifting, trying to remember what had happened, when he'd heard her voice and then Blair's, and had been drawn into full, if lethargic, wakefulness. He'd decided it was easier to just let them visit than try to involve himself in the conversation, so he'd pretended to still be sleeping.

When he listened to all that Sandburg said about him, he was glad that the room seemed dark, so he wouldn't be betrayed by a flush of embarrassment. And when he heard her talking about dreams and what she'd perceived -- and heard his partner's answer -- he'd needed time to work past the lump in his throat before he even tried speaking. He wasn't sure if the emotions surged because he was deeply moved, or simply because he was so relieved that, somewhere along the line, Sandburg seemed to have forgiven him.

Gradually, when the tightness in his chest finally eased, other awarenesses impinged upon him -- like the facts that he hurt like blazes and that he seemed to be all tied up and couldn't move his arms. Fully alert, he could feel them, wiggle his fingers, so he knew it wasn't paralysis or anything. His arms were bound and it was beginning to piss him off. Scowling, he opened his eyes, squinting even against the dim light, and looked toward Blair, who was again sitting quietly in the nearby chair, his head bowed, hair concealing his face.

"Chief?" he called hoarsely, the agony he was feeling too damned clear in his voice for comfort.

Leaping to his feet as if jolted by a bolt of electricity, Blair leaned over him, his expression hopeful. "Hey, you're awake? Finally. Um, I bet the pain is pretty bad, huh? You want to check your dials?"

"Forget the dials," he growled. "Why the hell am I in some kind of straightjacket?"

"Well, that would be because you're crazy," Sandburg answered with a perfectly straight, utterly sincere expression. "When you're left on your own, you do absolutely insane things that could get you killed, man. So, um, this is like necessary, you know?"

Distinctly unamused, Jim glared at him. "Why am I all tied up?" he demanded again, his icy tone warning that, even trussed as he was, he could still wreak a lot of havoc if he didn't get some straight answers and damned quick.

"You really are hurting," Blair murmured, frowning in concern, completely unintimidated. "Work with me, here, man. We'll get your dials sorted out and then I'll explain everything, okay? There's no reason to keep suffering like this."

Sighing in defeat, Jim rolled his eyes. "Alright, have it your way," he grumbled grudgingly. Closing his eyes, he listened to Blair's voice, followed it until he could focus only on the words. Breathing deeply, slowly, he began to picture the dials and his lips thinned at how out of whack they were. Beginning with touch, he brought down his sensitivity to pain, and then adjusted the others. When he was finished, he heaved a shuddering sigh of relief and opened his eyes. "Okay, talk," he directed.

"Glad you're feeling better," Sandburg soothed, "because now I can kill you in good conscience."

Blinking, Jim squinted at him, wondering if he'd messed up his hearing somehow. "Kill me?" he echoed confused. "You tied me up so you could kill me?"

"No, you schmuck, you're tied up because you practically tore out every muscle in both shoulders and God knows how badly you screwed up your back. Do you remember what you did?"

Frowning, his gaze drifting around the darkened room, Jim wasn't sure -- and then memories hit with a jolt. Blood drained from his face and he gasped, feeling sick. "Oh, God."

"Yeah," Blair agreed, gently pressing him palm upon Jim's brow, grounding him. "We're finally on the same page, here. You okay?"

Swallowing convulsively, Jim's jaw clenched, but he nodded jerkily. "It was, uh, a long time."

"It must have felt like an eternity, man," Sandburg murmured hoarsely. "Don't misunderstand me, okay? I mean, I can't believe you did that, risked that, to save me from a bad fall, to keep me from being hurt. It's ... well, it's beyond amazing and awesome and ... beyond words. But Jim, if you ever do anything so stupid again, I really will kill you. I might have been hurt, sure. But you could have died, man. Don't ever, ever do anything like that again."

"Fifteen feet or fifteen hundred -- landing badly on hard ice, well, you could have been more than hurt, Sandburg," Jim argued, looking away. "Your head could have split like a melon."

"Oh, and that would be worse than you going splat?"

"Uh, yeah."

"I don't know why I should be surprised," Blair exclaimed, exasperated. "I mean, this is just like that first day on the job when you grabbed hold of the helicopter skid and were carried out over the city. And almost as bad as going after that maniac Lash single-handedly and falling through four or five rotten floors in that warehouse. Or untold other incredibly dumb things you've done -- but I could always rationalize them before, you know? I mean, I knew that partly you were doing that stuff to, uh, save my life -- but you were also making sure some seriously twisted killers didn't get away to kill again." Pausing, his lips parting in amazement, he slowly shook his head. "But this time? This time you'd already arrested the bad guy. This time, you went walking on thin air just to protect me."

Not getting the point, not really wanting to talk about it anyway, Jim grunted, "So?"

"So if you ever get killed just to save my life I will never, ever forgive you! You understand that?"

His brows lifting, his expression wry as he glanced at Sandburg, Jim retorted, "Well, it's not like I'd care, I mean, if I was already dead."

"Hopeless. You're hopeless. You've got this pathological need to protect that is way out of control, man. We have got to work on this."

"Maybe, but let's get to that later, huh? About the restraints?" Jim pushed. "I want them off."

"They aren't restraints," Blair told him. "They're supports for your shoulders, to let them heal. You really ripped your muscles, man, holding both my weight and yours. You have to wear them for up to ten days."

"Ten days!" Jim roared. "Uh uh, no way."

"Oh, yes, 'way'. Way, way. Way," Blair insisted, nodding emphatically.

"Chief, please, tell me you're kidding me here -- and it's not very funny, you know? Ten days? I can't do anything like this. I'm," he swallowed against the hateful idea, "helpless."

"No, it's not funny, but it is the way it is. You can use all ten days to reflect on what an idiot you were and to promise yourself you'll never do anything even remotely as crazy ever again."

Looking away, sagging dejectedly, twitching a nose that, perversely, just had to choose that moment to become itchy, he said hollowly, "So, do I pass the period of incarceration for my sins here or at Fairhills?"

"Well, you see, there's always some good news," Blair replied with annoying cheerfulness. "Your bestest Christmas present this year is that you get to go home for Christmas. I'm taking you home in the morning."

Wincing, Jim's lips twisted disbelievingly. "And you're saying I'm the one who's nuts, here? Chief. I can't go home. I can't ... can't do anything for myself when I'm all trussed up like this."

Looking mystified, Blair rolled his hands in the air, as he replied, "You'll have to help me out here, big guy. I'm not getting the problem."

Jim's expression flattened and he turned his face away. "Sure you do," he grated tightly. "Kidding around doesn't make it any more acceptable."

Sandburg's expression softened. Reaching forward, he cupped Jim's cheek with one hand and pulled gently until Ellison was again facing him, if still refusing to make eye contact. "Hey, you saying that I'm not good enough to do less than a fraction for you of what you did for me?"

Flinching, Jim looked up at him. "No! No, I'm not saying that, and you know it. Quit twisting stuff around here. I just ... you're not ...."

"A nurse?" Blair offered. "You're thinking it's, like, disgusting to help you eliminate your wastes and clean you up?"

Jim swallowed, his eyes again hooded.

Caressing his friend's cheek with his hand, Blair murmured, "It's not disgusting to help someone you care about when they can't help themselves. It's not like we're strangers or something. We're family, Jim. Family help one another, and are glad to do it."

The muscle in Jim's jaw rippled, and he swallowed again -- hard.

"And, hey, it's not like your equipment is anything I don't have myself," Sandburg drawled. "Hold one pissing penis and you've pretty much held them all, right?"

"What?" Jim barked around the laughter surprised out of him, gaping at Blair incredulously. "Hold one and you've held them all?"

Snickering, Blair shrugged innocently. "Well, you know what I mean. It's not like it'll be all that hard, er, difficult."

"Hard?" Jim choked, and they both convulsed in laughter. But the laughter pulled at burning muscles and Jim wasn't able to stifle the groan at the surging flare of agony in his shoulders, chest and back.

"Oh, sorry, sorry, man," Blair babbled, immediately contrite. "Okay, got it. No making you laugh, at least not for a few days. Let's get that dial fixed ...."

When Jim could again breathe evenly, Sandburg said quietly, "It'll be fine, Jim. I promise. I want you home for Christmas, man, and I'm not taking 'no' for an answer."

Jim had to blink hard against the sudden burn in his eyes, and sniff before he husked, "Okay, Chief. Home for Christmas."

"Good. Oh and I have some other good news," Blair told him then. "Dinner at Simon's is postponed until Sunday to give you a chance to rest up a little."

"Dinner? Sunday?"

"Yeah. Don't worry, man. I'll feed you."

Rolling his eyes, Jim grimaced and then growled, "Scratch my nose, Sandburg."

"Hey, now, that's not very nice, Jim. I mean, it's better than 'kiss my ass', but -"

"No, I mean it," Jim interrupted. "Scratch my nose. It's itchy and driving me crazy."

Grinning with impish tenderness, Blair happily obliged. "Whatever you need, man. I'm your hands for the duration. Whatever you need."

Sighing with relief, though he truly despised being vulnerable and helpless, Jim was also grateful for the unconditional and affectionate support, profoundly so for the teasing that made accepting help bearable. Flicking a meaningful look up at his partner, awkward with the maelstrom of emotion he was feeling, Jim muttered, "Thanks, Chief."

Hearing more than the relief, seeing much more in Jim's eyes, Blair nodded slowly. No one knew better than he did how hard it was for Jim to be rendered effectively helpless. His expression both understanding and kind, his voice low and warm, he replied gently, "You're welcome, Jim."

When Ellison attempted to stifle a yawn that had snuck up on him, Sandburg soothed, "Don't fight it, man. If you need to sleep, then sleep. It's probably the best thing to help you heal. I'll be here when you wake up."

Jim quirked a sardonic brow, but relaxed as best he could and closed his eyes. Though he was afraid he was feeling too dependent, too needy, it was still very reassuring to know Blair was planning to hang around a bit longer, not leave him bound and helpless. Listening to his partner's heartbeat and the soft susurration of his breathing, Jim slipped into sleep.

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

"Hi," Blair said quietly into the phone, glancing at Jim to ensure the sound of his voice wasn't disturbing his friend's sleep. "Just wanted to let you know that he woke up and is doing pretty good, all things considered."

"All things ..." Simon echoed, and then got it. "Oh, you mean about having his arms bound. Bet he's not thrilled about that."

"Good bet," Sandburg replied with humorous emphasis. "'Not thrilled' would be an understatement." Glancing at Jim, he went on, "We'll manage. It's only for a week or so."

"Well, if you need any help, you know where to call."

"That I do," Blair affirmed with a smile. "Um, I was wondering -- did you tell Jim that you saw me this morning? That I was planning to go home after the show?"

"I thought we agreed never to mention that, Sandburg," Simon huffed with mock annoyance, but his voice softened as he admitted, "No, I didn't say anything to him. I figured that was between two of you."

"Yeah, I guess you're right, it is," Blair replied, frowning as he glanced at Jim, realizing Jim had slid over the edge of that catwalk still thinking that they were at odds. Swallowing, recalling himself, he injected warmth into his voice as he continued, "Merry Christmas, Simon -- oh, and tell Daryl I'm looking forward to dinner on Sunday."

"Will do. I hope you guys have as good a day tomorrow as you can. See you both Sunday."

Blair hung up the phone and sat down to watch Jim sleep. When visiting hours formally ended, and a middle-aged nurse making the rounds told him it was time to go, he rose to talk to her, waving her into the corridor and softly closing the door behind him. "Please let me stay," he cajoled, wide eyes imploring. "It's just for one night and I'll be very quiet. I promise I won't disturb him." Glancing toward the door, he lowered his voice and spoke quickly, "But, uh, well, he can't use his hands, even to push the call button if he needs something. And, well, he might have nightmares -- he ... he came really close to dying today. So, um, I'm his roommate and his partner at work, and I think it would be easiest for everyone if I, like, just hang around, you know? I can doze in the chair and then I'll be here to take him home as soon as he's signed out in the morning. And if he needs something during the night, well, then, I'll be right there."

"Well," she hesitated, looking as if she was going to refuse permission to stay.

"Honestly, I won't sleep a wink at home because I'll just be worrying about him," he urged, "and ... and he hates to ask anyone for help. If he needs something and can't reach the bell, and there's no one right there, he won't call out -- he'll just endure, you know? Please, just the night. Nobody has to know." He paused, and looked away, his expression sad, almost haunted. "He saved my life today. I can't ... I can't just leave him. Not like this. Not on Christmas Eve."

Shaking her head at the overdone sentimentality of emphasizing what night it was, suspecting she was being played by an expert, she still couldn't resist the woebegone plea. "Okay, okay," she capitulated with an indulgent smile. "You can stay."

A radiant smile burst upon his face and his eyes lit with exuberant gratitude. Impulsively, he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. "Thanks," he said with such evident sincerity that she was glad she'd agreed. He turned back to the door, and then called softly over his shoulder, "I hope you have a great Christmas."

Back inside the room, he closed the door to block out as much as possible of the endless low-level noise of the hospital and moved silently back to his chair by the bed. The bright lights of the parking lot below filtered through the closed curtains, giving him more than enough light to watch Jim sleep. He was glad it had proven so easy to get the permission to stay, because he really didn't want the hassle of fending off security guards and calling Simon to get him to intercede a second time that evening. But, regardless of what night it was, there was no way anyone would have gotten him to leave Jim.

Ellison's sleep was restless, and he mumbled unintelligibly, seeming distressed, so Blair often rose to stroke his brow, afraid to touch his arms or shoulders lest he only cause more pain. "Shh," he whispered, sentinel-soft. "Shh."

Once, near midnight, the garbled, rasping mutterings resolved into understandable words and Blair heard Jim pleading, sounding desperate and scared -- something Sandburg had never heard in his friend's voice before. "Please, Chief. God, please. Look up. Look up!"

"Ah, Jim," he whispered, tears blurring his eyes. "I'm sorry it took me so long, man. I'm so sorry."

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

Waking with a start, Ellison stared rigidly into the darkness and then he realized he'd only dreamed he was falling. Blair was there, beside him, slowly, soothingly stroking his brow. His breathing slowed and the flare of panic faded. Wordlessly, Sandburg held a straw to his lips and he gratefully sipped the cool, refreshing water. Closing his eyes, he sighed, trying not to fight the pain, trying not to hate the slings that kept his arms bound.

"You okay?" Blair asked softly.

"Yeah," he rasped, looking up at his partner. "What time is it?"

"A little before one."

"You're kidding?" Jim exclaimed, feeling guilty for being so pathetically relieved that he wasn't alone. "What are you still doing here? You should have gone home hours ago."

"Well, you know, you're right, and my head and feet thought that might be an idea," Blair told him as if sharing something that was really quite puzzling. "But I could only get so far and the weirdest thing happened. And it happened again and again, every single time my feet tried to go. Here, I'll show you." Straightening, with great deliberation he began to walk along the edge of the bed and then around the bottom toward the door, all the while saying, "This is just so odd, Jim. I mean, I can't explain it rationally but -" Just as he got to the far edge of the foot of the bed, his hands flew out as if of their own accord and locked onto the bed frame. Blair pantomimed trying to pull away, putting up quite a struggle until finally giving up and heaving a sigh. Looking up at Jim, he said, "You see? These hands just won't go. They just won't. I guess they really are yours for the duration, man, 'cause they sure aren't paying attention to me. I can't get them to let go until I do this." He stepped back toward the window and his hands floated up into the air. "See. Weird. Definitely weird." He waited a beat and then, deepening his voice, arching a brow, he asked with worried uncertainty, sounding for all the world like a wary Banks who really didn't want to know the answer, "You think it's a sentinel thing?"

Jim snorted and compressed his lips, trying hard not to laugh.

"Or maybe it's a guide thing?" Sandburg postulated, looking at the ceiling, tapping his lips with two fingers thoughtfully.

Jim coughed, his lips twitching.

"I think we should test this," Blair carried on, with eager sincerity. "I've got a few ideas and we could -"

Jim lost his battle as chuckles broke free and he winced, trying not to groan when the ripples of laughter pulled on his shoulders and back. "Stop!" he gasped, "You're killing me here."

"You think?" Sandburg asked eagerly, returning along the side of the bed. "Cause if I kill you with laughter, then there'll be no evidence, you know? I've been thinking about it and I really think it could be the perfect crime."

Shaking his head, Ellison looked at him with amused incredulity. "How long did it take you to come up with this little routine? 'Cause I gotta tell you, Chief. You're never gonna make it as a stand-up comic."

Looking like someone just kicked his puppy, Blair sagged in discouragement. "Oh. Well, maybe if I sat down?" he muttered, gesturing at the chair and then scratching his head, pondering the challenge.

"Sandburg. Blair. Helping me out for the next week or so doesn't mean you have to keep me amused every minute of the day and night," Jim said with a fond tone.

Sighing, Sandburg shook his head. "I don't know, Jim. You get surly when you're bored, man. Just trying a pre-emptive strike, you know."

"Surly?" Jim challenged, glowering at him.

"Yeah, you know, grumpy," Blair carried on as if he'd missed the glower. "Irritable. Sharp. Testy. Prickly. Sullen."

"I know what 'surly' means, Sandburg."

"Well, yeah, when they took your picture to use as the definition of the word in the dictionary -"

"You're brave now, buddy, because I can't strangle you -- but when I get my hands on you ...."

"Well, actually, I'm the one who's gonna have my hands on you first, so you better be nice to me, Jim."

"Nice?"

Blair nodded with great solemnity. "I thought you could start by singing me a medley of cheerful holiday songs -- I especially like the one with the chipmunks and you could do all the voices, you know, when they take shots at one another?"

Grinning helplessly, warmed by the laughter that bubbled in his chest, Jim realized he hadn't thought about the pain -- or how ... chilled he felt about being trussed up -- since he'd awakened. And he'd forgotten all about his nightmare about falling into icy oblivion. "Merry Christmas, Chief," he said softly.

Blair leaned down to kiss his forehead very lightly, and then he resumed his soothing stroking of Jim's brow, just as he'd been doing when Jim had cried out and jerked into sharply frightened wakefulness. "Merry Christmas, Jim," he murmured. "Now go back to sleep."

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

It was going on eleven AM when the taxi pulled up outside Collette's. Sandburg paid off the cabbie and then hastened around to help Jim out of the vehicle. Ellison's coat was draped over his shoulders and loosely buttoned, inadequate protection against the chill wind that blew skirls of snow. They hastened inside and into the elevator.

Having mixed feelings about being home, thinking about the apartment and how he'd put off setting up the tree with the hope that Sandburg would be there to help on Christmas Eve, Jim apologized, "I didn't have time to put up any decorations, Chief. I'm afraid the place doesn't look much like Christmas this year."

"Well, I'm not surprised," Sandburg replied. "You were working pretty flat out, while keeping an eye on me at the arena. Don't worry about it."

Jim nodded, not really mollified but there wasn't anything he could do about it now. Watching the indicator lights above the door as the decrepit machine wheezed its way to the third floor, he reflected how odd it was to feel badly about not having a tree up. For most of his life after leaving home, he'd treated Christmas like any other day and hadn't done anything special to fix up any of the places he'd lived. But their first year together, Blair had gotten all excited about having a tree and Jim had been looking forward to ... well, it couldn't be helped.

The elevator slid open and, in less than a minute, Blair had the door unlocked and stepped back to let Jim enter ahead of him. Jim stopped two steps inside and sniffed and then turned to gape at the decorated tree.

"Hey, this is great! You were just putting me on about not getting a tree," Sandburg enthused, hanging up Jim's coat and peeling off his own.

"I didn't get a tree," Ellison stated, frowning in confusion. Turning to look at Blair, he said, "It wasn't here when I left for work yesterday morning."

"Well, who ..." Blair muttered and then snapped his fingers. With a pleased smile, he guessed, "It had to have been Janey and Tommy. They had my keys and dropped my stuff off here after the show yesterday. Man, that is just so great of them, to do all this for us and not say a word about it last night -- oh, I forgot to tell you that she stopped by for a brief visit, to see how you were doing." Placing a light hand on Jim's back, gesturing around the apartment, he asked, "You want to sit down here for awhile or head upstairs?"

"Uh, I've had enough sleep for awhile," Jim replied. "You think you could get me a sweatshirt? I feel half-naked."

"Sure thing," Sandburg agreed, loping to the stairs. "But, technically, you're only a quarter-naked. Those slings cover your chest pretty well -- it's your back that's -"

"Just get the shirt," Ellison cut in. "And, uh, while you're up there? There's a present on my dresser. Maybe you could bring that down, too."

Pausing on the steps, Blair looked over his shoulder. "A present? For me?" he teased, acting like a little kid.

"Yes, for you," Jim sighed patiently, the corner of his mouth quirking into a smile. He looked warily at the furniture in the living room, not entirely sure he was going to be at all comfortable. His back was aching and his shoulders still drummed with pain, and the wound in his hand felt raw.

In what seemed only seconds, Sandburg was pounding back down the steps, his arms full of pillows, a soft cotton blanket, a sweatshirt and the meticulously-wrapped gift. "Come over here, man," he called, dumping the pillows onto Jim's favourite chair and then carefully setting the package on the coffee table.

Ellison bowed his head and bent his knees slightly, to make it easier for Sandburg to get the roomy, warm sweatshirt over his head. Carefully, Blair drew it down over his shoulders, the material now hiding his arms and hands, the empty sleeves hanging loose. "There you go," he murmured, turning to the chair and building a kind of nest that would give Jim more support than the armchair alone could provide. When it was ready, he looked at it critically. "You think that's going to be comfortable?" he asked, glancing at Jim over his shoulder.

"I think it'll be just fine, Chief," he replied gratefully and then allowed Blair to wrap an arm around his waist to ease him down.

Once he was sure Ellison was comfortable, Sandburg plugged in the Christmas tree lights, got a fire going in the stove, slipped a CD into the machine, and then moved into the kitchen. "I know it's decadent, but it is Christmas, so I was thinking hot chocolate might be kinda good," he suggested. "And maybe blueberry pancakes with sausages? We've still got some frozen blueberries in the freezer."

Jim smiled slightly, hoping it didn't look as forced as it felt, and nodded. "Sounds great, Chief," he agreed, dreading the idea of being fed, but too hungry to pretend he didn't want to eat.

"I'm just going to take a quick shower and get into some normal clothes first," Blair called over his shoulder. Short minutes later, his hair still damp, garbed in a loose shirt and jeans, he was back in the kitchen, pulling out ingredients and pans. As he worked, Blair rattled on, "We've just got time to eat and open our presents before the games come on. Not sure about dinner. I'll check what we've got in the freezer."

"Doesn't have to be anything fancy, Sandburg," Jim sighed, gazing at the fire.

"Good, because the fancy Christmas dinner is tomorrow night," Blair chuckled.

Before long, the rich scents of chocolate, pancakes and frying sausages filled the loft, making it feel homey and even cozy, especially with the crackle of the fire. Jim tried to let the familiar feeling of normalcy ease away his tension, letting the peace of the music and the warmth of home sooth him. Sure, his back and arms hurt like hell and it was going to be awkward for a few days but, in the big scheme of things, those discomforts and even the humiliations to come would pass. It was Christmas, and Blair was home, cooking in the kitchen -- something that, less than twenty-four hours before, he'd been afraid wouldn't be the case. Gazing at the tree, smiling a little at the twinkling lights, inhaling the evergreen scent, he discovered that he felt ... happy. When the cheerful, high-pitched chirp of singing chipmunks filled the loft, he couldn't help but warble along with them --deliberately off-key -- grinning in delight when Blair looked up, startled, and then convulsed with laughter. "Okay, okay," he finally managed to snicker, waving his hands, "I take it back. You don't have to sing for me."

Chuckling, Jim desisted. "Well, if you insist," he allowed.

"Oh, trust me, man, I do insist."

Minutes later, Sandburg had everything on the table and he hastened into the living room to help Jim out of the low chair. Slipping a sturdy arm around Ellison's waist, he said, "Okay, on three. One, two ..."

Jim tightened his leg and abdominal muscles, leaned forward and, on 'three', he lurched awkwardly to his feet, glad of Blair's solid help. He shook his head ruefully at how the loss of the use of his arms impacted on his balance and ease of movement. Blair ensured he was steady and then let his arm fall away, maintaining only a light touch in the small of his back as they made their way to the table.

Sandburg had set his place on the side close to the end where Jim habitually sat. Once they were both seated, he picked up Jim's mug of cocoa in one hand, his own in the other, and lightly tapped them together in a salute while cheerfully saying, "Merry Christmas, Jim." And then he held Jim's mug to his mouth, warning, "It might be a little hot."

Jim quirked a brow, blew over the top of it as he always did with a hot beverage and then sipped carefully. "Mmm," he murmured, pulling back. "It's good."

"Of course it's good," Blair replied complacently, as he sliced into the pancakes and sausages on Jim's plate. "I made it with only the very best of Fair Trade organic chocolate." He gave his partner a forkful, and then took a bite himself, his expression blissful at the succulent taste of blueberries. "You know," he rhapsodized, mimicking the old 'let Mikey try it' commercials, "ever since I was little, I've loved blueberries."

Swallowing his mouthful of food, Jim deadpanned, "Since you were little? I hate to break it to you, Chief, but you still are."

And so it went. Eating took a little longer than usual, but they bantered back and forth and, when the meal was over, Jim thought that being fed really hadn't been so bad after all.

He kept Blair company during the kitchen clean-up and then, drying his hands, Sandburg turned to ask, "So, back to the living room or a side trip down the hall first?"

Ellison blinked and then felt humiliated when he felt the heat of a flush flood his neck, ears and face. His gaze dropped and he unconsciously shook his head tightly.

"Okay, living room it is," Blair said evenly, filling the taut silence. "And time for presents!" he added, as his footsteps brought him closer, with what Jim could tell was a fair degree of forced enthusiasm, trying to keep the mood light, easy.

A strong arm went around his waist as Blair leaned close to help support him as he stood. All the short distance across the apartment floor, Sandburg kept up a low, cheerful chatter but Ellison wasn't listening. He was too busy telling himself he had to get past his asinine, adolescent resistance, and even resentment, at accepting help that was freely offered -- help he couldn't do without for at least the next week. Blair eased him down into the chair's support and he took a steadying breath.

When the kid turned away, he rasped, "Chief," and then cleared his throat when Blair turned and hunkered down beside him, his wide eyes dark and warm with concern. Once again, Jim dropped his gaze, and stammered, "I'm just, uh ... well, that was a great breakfast, thanks."

"You're welcome," Blair murmured. Reaching out, he delicately drifted his fingertips over Jim's cheek and then cupped the back of his neck. "I remember how hard it was to accept help. Remember what it felt like to be so ... helpless. It stinks, Jim, I know that. But," he swallowed, "but I also remember what it felt like to know you were there for me and that it didn't bother you, didn't embarrass you to be my hands, to clean me up." His voice cracked as he continued, "It was incredible to feel loved that much, you know? Cared for so ... so completely. To be so ... safe." Sniffing, his voice husky, he asked, "Let me give you that gift, okay? The gift of knowing what it feels like to know someone loves you that much? Let me do whatever I can for you, whatever you need or want, and know that I'm just really glad to be able to help you, okay?"

His head bowed, Jim didn't speak for a long moment. Ever since he'd awakened in the hospital, Blair had been there, teasing, giving him shit, making him laugh, just like always. Only ... it wasn't 'like always'. For more than a week, they'd been a long way from 'like always'. When he did speak, his voice was low and rough and the breath was tight in his chest, and he couldn't look at Sandburg, could only share what was on his mind, concerns that he couldn't keep ignoring.

"You didn't want to be here this weekend," he grated. "You're only here, doing this, because ... because you think you owe me, and you don't. I'm not an obligation you have to ... to deal with. I appreciate it, that you're willing and want to; I don't know, maybe you see it as a sort of 'pay back', but you don't have to do this."

He heard Blair sigh, and then the kid shifted to sit cross-legged at his feet.

"I can see why you'd think all that," Sandburg said quietly, regretfully. "You didn't know that I'd decided to come home after yesterday's show, regardless of whether we got Perkins or not."

Jim's gaze flicked up in surprise, hope glimmering in their depths. "You forgave me? For what I said?"

His lips curling in a sad smile, Blair shook his head and Jim's gaze darkened and faltered, dropped away. But Blair reached out to lift his chin, as he said firmly, "I didn't forgive you because there was nothing to forgive. You explained it, that you were just blowing off steam. And I figured out why. You -- you worry too much about having to protect me. Feel too badly if something happens or almost happens, like it did the day before, when they were going to shoot both of us. That's it, isn't it? Why you wanted my pass revoked?"

His gaze darting sideways, Jim nodded stiffly. "It's my job to protect you," he insisted.

"Yeah, it is," Blair agreed. "But it's not your job to work miracles. Not your job to second-guess my decisions about the risks I take. I'm not a child, Jim. I am responsible for the outcomes of the choices I freely make. Like yesterday. If I'd fallen on the ice, if I'd been hurt, that wouldn't have been your fault. I put myself in that situation even when you were against the idea. And I put myself in the situation every time I go out with you on a case. I know you'll do your best to protect me. But shit can happen, man. Sometimes the bad guys get lucky."

"You take too many chances," Ellison insisted, giving Sandburg a penetrating glare. "Your research isn't worth your life, you know? There's got to be an easier way to get a PhD."

"You're right, getting my doctorate isn't worth some of the chances I freely take," Blair agreed solemnly. "But you are."

Blinking, almost flinching at the words, Jim floundered between a sense of profound affirmation and complete, furious denial. "I don't like it when you get hurt," he growled.

"No shit," Sandburg snickered, but at the enraged expression on Ellison's face that he evidently thought it funny, he held up a hand and sobered. "No, I'm not laughing at you," he hastened to explain. Waving at Jim's chest, at the slings covered by the sweatshirt, he elucidated, "Talk about 'pay back' -- you think I like seeing you hurt like this? All because I'd made a bad decision that caused you to pretty much literally go overboard to keep me from being injured? That I like knowing you'll go to these lengths to keep me from getting hurt? Man, it's one thing to be responsible for my own decisions, but I didn't realize the implications of what I choose to do might have for you."

"So you are here because you feel guilty," Jim snapped, once again turning his face away.

"Man, you are really making me work to wrap this gift of love, aren't you?" Sandburg sighed. "Well, okay. I'll admit it -- I was acting like a complete jerk all week because ... well, for a lot of reasons. There was a lot of truth in what you said to Simon, truth I'd been afraid of hearing for quite awhile now. So even when you said you didn't mean it, I couldn't let go of the fear that maybe I should be moving on. But I don't want to, Jim. I don't want to go anywhere or do anything but what I've been doing for over two years now. And ... and I was punishing myself, I guess. Refusing to agree to come home because I wanted so much to come home."

Frowning, Jim shook his head. "That makes absolutely no sense," he complained, returning his gaze to Blair's.

"Janet won't be home this Christmas," Sandburg whispered. "She doesn't get to live the life she dreamed of, so I wondered why I should have what I wanted."

Jim's gaze softened and his shoulders sagged. "Ah, Chief," he sighed. "That wasn't your fault."

Nodding slowly, Blair's gaze wandered around the loft. "I guess, in some ways, I finally accepted that last night," he whispered huskily, his voice thick with sorrow. Swallowing, he shrugged a little and returned his gaze to Jim's. "The point is -- I'd decided to come home before you got hurt. I'm here because this is where I most want to be. Not because I feel guilty or because I think I owe you something." Taking a breath, he said, his voice very low, "I brought you home because I want you here. I know how uncomfortable it is for you when you're in a hospital -- rough sheets, the wrong soap, lights that are too bright. Hard to get better when everything around you is an irritant. And, well, most of all, I wanted to bring you home because I don't want strangers taking care of you. I know it's probably an imposition, sort of, and you'd probably be more comfortable with trained staff helping you, but I want to do that myself -- because, well, because I love you."

Jim looked at the bowed head beneath him and mightily wished for one good arm, to be able to reach out and riffle his fingers through those curls. Somehow, touching to express his emotions was always easier than speaking the words, of figuring out what were the right words to say. Were there words for what he was feeling? For the wash of warmth that was more than gratitude, or the surge of something so poignant filling his chest making it hard to breathe and that ached, but in a good way? A really good way. If there were, he didn't know what they were.

In lieu of hands, he nudged Blair's shoulder with his knee. "Hey," he murmured, his mouth dry, "I'd rather be home any day than in some institution, no disrespect to the staff in those places. And, uh, well, um, you know it works both ways, right?" He hesitated, wishing to hell he could manage the right words. "I know I don't say it much, but you do know that I, well, I ...." When his voice cracked, he gave up in discouragement.

But Blair was looking up at him curiously, as if confused or surprised, as if trying to puzzle something out. When the silence lengthened between them, he asked, "What do you mean you don't say it much? Jim, you tell me how much you care about me and worry about me every single day! You yell at me that I work too much and get too tired, or if I forget to eat, and you share your home with me and that's not to mention the way you put yourself between me and danger all the damned time! And what you did, when I was recovering last year? Man, if that wasn't love, then I don't know what love is."

"Then ... then why were you so worried that I might be wanting to get rid of you?"

Heaving a sigh, Blair looked around the loft and then back at Jim. "Because it's all so unequal, you know? You give me so much, all the time -- I've never known the kind of life that you give me, ever, not ever before -- and I keep thinking that sooner or later, you're just going to get tired of putting out and not getting enough back, enough to warrant giving up your privacy and having an untrained observer hanging around that you have to worry about."

"Sandburg, sometimes you think too damned much," Jim sighed. "This isn't some kind of competition where we score points. Besides the fact that the help you give me with the senses is, well, pretty much priceless, we're friends. I thought you understood that."

"Yeah, well, I do now," Sandburg acknowledged, his tone slightly defensive. "But when it's the first time and everything, well, I just never learned to trust anyone the way I can trust you. It's been ... well, it seems too incredible, too amazing, too ... nice, to think it could all go on forever." Shrugging uncomfortably, picking at a loose thread on his jeans, he mumbled, "My life has always been more about moving on, you know? Whether I've wanted to or not."

"It's not about that anymore," Jim replied firmly, once again wishing profoundly that his hands worked, the better to wring Naomi's long, lovely neck. "No more moving on for you, kid, until and unless you want to go." When Blair simply nodded and sniffed, but kept his head bowed, his face hidden by the curtain of hair, Jim rolled his eyes, wondering how to dig them out of the emotional morass they'd created. Nudging Blair for the third time with his knee, injecting just the slightest edge of impatience into his tone, he suggested, "However, you could move your butt to get us a couple of beers. The game's going to start in a few minutes and we still haven't gotten to the rest of the presents."

"The rest of the presents?" Blair echoed softly and then nodded a little, the tension in his body melting away. Laughing low in his throat, relieved to have the difficult moments passed, Sandburg rolled to his feet. "Your wish is my command," he chuckled heading toward the kitchen. Waving his arms in the air, he added, "These hands live to do your bidding."

Jim grinned in relief that he hadn't had to explain his comment; that Blair had understood that he'd meant the gifts of their mutual friendship, all wrapped up in trust and tied with love. Sure, it was the way he felt, but to say it out loud? He'd rather eat glass. Good thing the kid knew that and didn't torture him by forcing the question.

Sandburg detoured to his room to fetch the present he had for Jim and then he hauled one of the wooden chairs over to sit beside him, where it would be easier to help him drink his beer. After they'd both had a sip, Blair set the bottles on the floor and reached to pull the gift from Jim off the table. Shaking it, there was no rattle, and it felt like a thin rectangular box under the paper. It was fairly heavy.

"Just open it, Sandburg," Jim grumbled.

With an impish grin, Blair summarily ripped the paper to shreds, and tossed the scraps on the floor in the middle of the room. He tore open a box and, inside, he found a leather-bound photo album engraved in gold script: When you wish upon a star ... and when he opened it, the next line was scrolled on the top of the first page, over a large photograph ... your dreams can come true.

And the picture was of him, arms high above his head in his final pose at centre ice at the end of the Follies show, smiling with joyful abandon.

"Oh, Jim," he whispered, overwhelmed. Turning the pages, he found professional photo after photo, capturing him in all the roles he'd played on the ice and some showing the crowd in a standing ovation. His heart twisted to realize that Janey wasn't the only one who had fully understood what skating in that show had meant to him. Looking up in wonder, he asked, "When? How ...?"

"I got the show's photographer to put it together from the shots he'd taken of the show last weekend," Jim replied diffidently. "Picked it up on Wednesday, after the show. Before we all met for drinks."

Blair caressed the pages and turned more until he came to the end, about a third of the way through the book.

"Sorry, I guess I should have gotten him to keep going until it was filled," Jim muttered.

"No," Sandburg replied softly, shaking his head as he lightly riffled through the blank pages. "It's perfect this way. I need room to add lots more photos. You know, of the ones when we've been camping. Or down along the coast. Or even just in the park or walking along the harbor front, or some from here at home. And ones of when the MCU gang gets together. And pictures that we'll take at Simon's tomorrow."

"Well, sure, fine, if you want to use it for ordinary stuff," Jim said, looking away.

"Not ordinary stuff, no," Blair replied, reaching to gently squeeze the back of his partner's neck. "This album is only for the pictures that capture all my dreams. This is a really great gift, Jim. Thanks."

"Oh," Jim murmured, a small, shy smile of pleasure lighting his face, flushing slightly as he recalled what Sandburg had said to Janey the evening before -- that he got to live his dreams every day.

"Okay, time for your present," Blair said, picking up a long, thin white envelope from the coffee table. When Jim looked up in anticipation, Sandburg wafted it under his nose. "Care to guess what's in it, oh mighty Sentinel?" he teased.

"No, uh, well -- it smells like popcorn," Jim replied, frowning in puzzlement. Grimacing, he added, "And, uh, like a locker room."

"God, you're good," Blair enthused, his eyes sparkling. He sniffed it himself and shook his head. "I don't get any of that."

"Chief, come on, what's in the envelope?" Jim cajoled.

"Uh, well first," Blair began, looking at him so earnestly that he wondered if he should be worried, "there's nothing improper in you accepting this gift. It's not like it was given to you directly, like for favors or something. I did pay for what's in here, even if only a fraction of what the normal price would be."

Jim narrowed his eyes and tilted his head. "Sandburg, what's in the envelope?" he growled.

With a quizzical look, Blair made a show of opening it carefully and drawing out the accordion of a long, thin stack of printed tickets and shook them out. "Two sets of season's tickets to the Jags’ home games, courtside seats," he revealed with a flourish.

Jim gaped at the tickets. Courtside seats? He'd have to mortgage the loft to afford those! "Chief, my God!" he exclaimed. "How did you ever manage -- even at a fraction of the usual -- this is too much!"

"Let's just say a friend on the team made it possible," Blair grinned, well pleased by Jim's reaction.

"Orvelle, right?"

"Anyone ever tell you that you'd make a great detective?" Sandburg teased. "Just a few little clues and -- bang! -- you've got it all figured out."

"This is great, Chief!" Jim enthused, gazing with rapture at the long string of tickets. "We are going to have a great season -- courtside. Wow."

"We?"

"Of course, 'we' -- you got two sets of tickets, right?"

"Man, I was hoping you'd say that! Merry Christmas, Jim."

"The merriest," Jim grinned, eyes twinkling with pleasure. "Now, give me another swig of beer, turn on the game, and clean up that paper from the floor."

"You got it, man," Blair snickered.

They settled down to watch the afternoon football, but Blair noticed Jim shifting uncomfortably all through the first quarter. When another long commercial break came on, he asked, "What do you need?"

Jim's lips twisted but then he admitted grudgingly, "My back and shoulders are killing me, and the cocoa and beer have done their rounds, if you know what I mean."

"Yep, know exactly what you mean, big guy," Sandburg allowed easily. Standing, he bent to support Ellison around the waist. "Okay, let's take a little trip down the hall."

Jim made it to his feet, unable to completely stifle a small grunt of pain, and felt like an old man as he shambled across the floor. Every muscle in his body was stiffening up and aching with a vengeance, and his shoulders and back felt like they were on fire -- don't even mention the wounded hand. When they got to the bathroom, Blair followed him in, stood a little behind him and to the side, unzipped the fly of his jeans and deftly drew out his penis, while Jim stared fixedly at the wall above the toilet. Blair rubbed small circles in the small of his back, murmuring very softly, "It's okay -- hold one and you've held them all, remember?"

He snorted, but recalling their nearly hysterical laughter the night before relaxed him. When he was done, Blair got him put back together, washed his hands, and then helped him back into the living room. But before he could sit down again, his partner observed, "That chair isn't comfortable enough, is it? Not enough support. And we need to do something about your back and shoulders. Think you could handle a massage or would that hurt too much?"

"Worth a try," Jim replied, hoping something would help loosen the cramping muscles.

"Okay, let's try this," Blair suggested, turning the wooden chair around. "Try sitting on this, resting your chin on the back." When Jim swung his leg over the seat and sat, Blair put a pillow between his arms and the rungs of the chair before he leaned forward. Standing behind him, Sandburg began kneading his neck and shoulders. He flinched and Blair immediately stopped. "We better get those dials down first, I guess," he observed, keeping his warm hands lightly on Jim's shoulders as he walked his sentinel through the process. A moment later, he asked, "How's that?"

"Better," Jim muttered. "Still burns."

Frowning, Sandburg bent to hike up the back of his sweatshirt. "Oh, man," he sighed. "The support material of the slings is really doing a number on your skin. Hold on a minute."

He hurried to the bathroom, and Jim heard water splashing into a basin, and then Blair was rummaging in the linen closet. When he returned, Sandburg explained, "I'm just going to wash your back with some of your oatmeal soap, Jim, and then work in some aloe. I've got some of your handkerchiefs to slip under the straps afterward, to keep the elasticized stuff off your skin, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, great."

The heat of the soft, wet cloth felt wonderful and the cool lotion even better, soothing away the sting of the burn. As soon as the softer material of the handkerchiefs was against his skin, he sighed with relief as muscles that he hadn't realized had stiffened in simple reaction to the growing discomfort of the skin irritation began to relax. Blair again began massaging his neck and shoulders, gradually moving down along his spine; taking his time, working the muscles but not so deeply that it was unbearable. His chin braced on a towel that Blair had draped on the back of the chair, watching the game, Jim gradually slipped into sleep.

When he woke sometime later, he heard Sandburg quietly talking to someone on the phone. Straightening, wincing at the pull on his shoulders and back, he tilted his head to listen in, but Blair was just finishing. When the kid hung up the phone and turned to see Jim watching him, he explained, "I was just talking to the doctor in Emergency." Crossing the room, he went on, "I told him about your skin 'allergy' and he agreed that we can try something different. Said I should probably be doing some gentle exercises with your arms anyway."

"Different? Like what?"

"Well, for one thing, get you out of those slings -- they may be giving your shoulders support, but they aren't doing a thing for your skin and if the irritation is that bad after less than a day, I don't even want to think about it after a week or more."

"So...?"

"So, first thing, we're going to get them off," Blair said, carrying another chair across the room and then going back for a third. "But you have to let me do all the work, you hear me? You're not to lift your arms at all by yourself, at least not for another six or seven days, he said."

"Chief, what's with the chairs?"

"We need to support your arms with something and the backs of the chairs are the right height," Sandburg explained, as he began to pull the sweatshirt up and off over Jim's head. And then got Jim to stand and sit on the chair properly, so that Blair was standing in front of him, between his knees. At the look of the reddened skin under the slings crossed over Ellison's chest, he shook his head. "You should have said something, man. You're hurting enough without having to suffer this, too."

"Didn't think there was much choice," Jim grumbled.

"Yeah, well, there are always choices, man -- you have to let me know when you're uncomfortable, okay?" Sandburg insisted as he carefully extricated Jim's badly bruised right arm. Tossing the sling aside, he gently extended the arm and bent it slowly, several times. "The doctor said we should have been told to do this at least twice a day," Blair murmured, "to keep your ligaments from contracting. So it's a good thing I called him."

Very carefully, he slipped one chair under Jim's armpit and then draped the arm over it, slightly bent at the elbow. Then he went through the same process with the left arm. "Just stay there for a minute while I get some more hot water to wash your chest and arms," he said, dashing away.

In the next half hour, Jim's chest and arms were both meticulously washed and slathered with aloe. While Blair worked over him, Jim watched his partner's face, struck by the intent, concerned expression of utter concentration, and the occasional flash of pain around Sandburg's lips and eyes, as if he was feeling what Jim himself felt, sharing it somehow. Ellison felt his throat thicken, certain he'd never experienced anything so moving in his life as being so tenderly cared for, with such compassion. When Blair was finished with the impromptu bath, he removed the basin and came back with a bunch of safety pins. He maneuvered both arms into the sleeves of Jim's sweatshirt and then carefully pulled the neck over Ellison's head. Lifting the left arm, he positioned it across Jim's chest and then pinned the sleeve in place. Stepping back, he asked, "How's that?" But even before Jim could answer, he shook his head. "Not good enough. The material has too much give for the support you need." Biting his lip, frowning in thought, he scratched his head.

"What if we wrapped a towel around my back and pinned the sleeves to it?" Jim suggested. "If the towel is pulled tight, that should hold my arms in place."

Blair's eyes narrowed uncertainly. "Wouldn't that pull on your neck too much?" he wondered.

"Not if we secure the bottom of the towel to my jeans, to keep it from riding up."

"Yeah, that could work," Sandburg nodded thoughtfully. "Worth a try."

Several minutes and safety pins later, Blair straightened and swept his hair back off his face. "Okay, how's that?"

"Feels good, Chief. A hell of a lot better than it was, that's for sure," Jim told him gratefully. He might still be trussed up, but the comfort of the soft material after the burn of the slings was an immeasurable relief.

Pleased, Sandburg smiled. "Okay, well, you hungry? Feel like a sandwich, maybe some soup?"

"Sure. Sounds good."

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

That night, they exchanged the jeans for sweatpants that would be more comfortable for sleeping. Once Blair had gotten Jim settled, he said, "Okay, I'm just going to run down to the basement and get my sleeping bag."

"What? Why?"

"Well because I'm going to sleep up here for the duration -- if you need anything during the night, I might not hear you from downstairs."

"You're not going to sleep on the floor, Sandburg."

"Well, uh, yeah, I am. Trust me, Jim, I've slept in less comfortable places."

Perturbed blue eyes glared into stubborn blue eyes, and Jim caved first. "Okay, fine. But you're not sleeping on the floor. This is a king-sized bed, Junior. I think we can manage to share it for a week."

"I don't know, man, I wouldn't want to, like, disturb you, you know?"

"In the bed, Sandburg."

Blair grinned. "Well, okay, if you insist." Stripping down to his t-shirt and boxers, yanking off his socks, he turned off the bedside lamp, went around the bed and crawled into the far side.

"Merry Christmas," he murmured.

"Merry Christmas, Chief."

"Goodnight, Jim-boy," Blair giggled.

Rolling his eyes, unable to bite back the laugh, Jim replied sternly, "Go to sleep, Sandburg."

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

"Shh, easy, Jim, easy," Blair murmured. When he'd been awakened by Jim's nightmare, he'd gotten up to kneel on the floor beside his friend, and was stroking Jim's brow. "It's only a dream, buddy," he soothed.

Jerking, Jim woke, panting as he stared into the shadows cast by the soft illumination filtering through the skylight.

"It's okay, you're safe," Blair whispered, leaving his palm on Jim's brow, to ground him. "You didn't fall, Jim. You held on, man. You didn't fall."

"Oh, God," Ellison gasped and swallowed, dragging a deep breath. "I ... sorry ... I ...."

"Shh. I know," he replied calmly, masking the deep, helpless sorrow he felt to know Jim was reliving those harrowing minutes in his dreams; worse, was falling in the nightmare. "It's just a dream. Normal. To be expected, okay? Just take it easy, relax."

Jim nodded tightly and closed his eyes, letting the soothing warmth and caresses of Blair's hand ease away the night terrors. How does he know? he wondered. How did Blair know what he was dreaming? Know that he needed -- however much the need embarrassed him -- to feel that reassuring touch? How did he know?

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

The next morning, Jim woke stiff and sore from having spent the night sleeping on his back, unable to move naturally or shift during the night. Blair frowned in concern, wondering what would best help. "C'mon," he urged, helping his partner to sit up and stand. "I've got an idea, providing you promise to let me do all the work."

Aching badly, Jim nodded tightly. "What've you got in mind?" he asked as Blair steadied him down the steps.

"A hot shower followed by a massage," Sandburg replied. "I know we're supposed to ensure continuous support to your shoulders, but a few minutes under the spray shouldn't hurt and I think it might make you feel a lot better."

Just the thought of a shower thrummed a low hum of pleasure in Jim's throat.

Blair got the water running, to warm up, while he stripped Jim down and fastened a plastic bag around Ellison's injured left hand, to keep the dressing dry. Quickly shucking his own skivvies, he helped Jim into the tub enclosure and got in behind him.

"Just like a locker room, right? Guys showering together," Sandburg offered in the hopes of easing the tension he could see in Jim's rigid body.

"Not quite, Chief," Ellison replied sardonically, ducking his head under the spray.

Chuckling softly, first Blair shampooed his partner's and his own hair, and then he gently lathered Jim's shoulders, back and legs. "Well, at least you can get in the shower," Sandburg chattered as he bathed Jim, reminding him obliquely that such intimacy between them wasn't unprecedented. "When I was stuck in that bed, I'd've given anything to be able to stand under the spray." When he finished, while he soaped his own body, he asked matter-of-factly, "Turn around, okay, so I can wash your front?"

Resigned to the assistance, Jim turned to face him, keeping his gaze locked on the tiles on the wall behind Blair. While Sandburg washed his arms, chest, abdomen and groin, the kid kept trying to distract him with conversation about ordinary things, like what they'd have for breakfast and did Jim want to go for a walk outside before they went to Simon's. Dutifully, Jim answered, grateful that the need to think about something else took his attention away, at least to some extent, from the feel of Blair's hands touching and stroking his body. The intimacy of the experience was disconcerting, but the spray of hot water over his neck, shoulders and back eased the deep aches in his body, and being washed was really no worse than Sandburg holding his dick while he urinated. Certainly was less uncomfortable than the idea of having to have his butt wiped, which was going to be the next inevitable task in Sandburg's care of him. Sternly, he told himself, as he'd told Blair months before, that it was all just natural functions, with no shame or humiliation in having to have assistance. Gradually, he relaxed and let the heat of the water, the steam, Sandburg's familiar chatter and sure, unembarrassed touch sooth him.

“Jim, since your hands are free, do you think you can wash your genitals?” Blair asked, hunkered down, lathering his legs.

Blinking, coming back from his intense scrutiny of the tile, Ellison looked down at the crown of Sandburg’s bent head. "Uh, maybe, yeah," he grunted, slowly and tentatively moving his right hand across his body but he gasped at the pain that shot up his arm, throbbing through his strained elbow, lighting an inferno in his shoulder that radiated up his neck, down his spine and into his chest. His jaw clenched and he pressed his eyes closed, disgusted, furious … humiliated by his inability to do this, the simplest of acts. Swallowing hard, he grated, “No, guess I can’t.”

Sandburg nodded as he soaped his feet. "No problem," he acknowledged quietly. As he stood, Jim fixed his gaze back on the tile, determined not to flinch when his friend touched him.

"Okay, you can turn again to rinse the front, and we're done," Blair told him cheerfully. He helped Jim out of the tub and draped a towel around his shoulders before quickly rinsing his own hair, and then he shut off the water, climbed out and dried his partner's body before his own. Leaving Jim to some privacy on the toilet, he dashed to his own room to dress and then upstairs to get fresh clothing for his friend. Minutes later, he was making jokes about how he'd felt when he'd been reliant on Jim's care, while shaving them both, getting Jim to laugh. Finally, he exercised Jim's arms and then helped him into a pair of sweatpants before leading him out to the kitchen, where he massaged Ellison's shoulders and back as he'd done the previous day, before getting his partner trussed again in his sweatshirt. Chuckling, he took care to use a towel that complemented the color of Jim's clothing, and commented about the fashion statement Jim would be making later at Simon's place, setting a whole new standard for 'casual'. "Kind of like a cape, you know?" he mused, grinning. "Except it's tied down -- the better to not get caught in a jet engine or something, or so the best superhero costume designers say."

As he began scrambling eggs, he said over his shoulder, his tone supportive and compassionate, "The first time for everything is the worst, Jim. The rest of the week won't feel so uncomfortable or awkward." Smiling gently, shyly, he turned to add, "Trust me, I know. Mostly, well, mostly I was just really grateful after a while, that you took such good care of me without leaving me feeling embarrassed or beholden about it all. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, you know? If there's anything I'm doing wrong, or could do better to help you feel anywhere near as comfortable with all this, just tell me, okay?"

Jim's throat tightened with gratitude. "You're doing great, Chief. Just great."

Sandburg smiled as if he'd been given a really special gift -- as if he didn't realize he was the one doing the giving.

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

When they arrived at the Banks residence, Daryl greeted them enthusiastically and took their coats as he waved them toward the kitchen where Simon was muttering over the gravy, much to Janey's amusement. She'd arrived a few minutes before and was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a glass of wine, relaxed and enjoying the experience of watching someone else worry about the consistency of the sauce. "Always makes me think of Tiny Tim's mother," she was saying. "And my mother -- and me for that matter," she chuckled, "whenever I make gravy."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Simon grinned, shaking his head. "No matter how often I do this, I'm never sure it's going to turn out right." Looking up from the pan as Jim and Blair entered, Daryl on their heels, he called, "Hey, welcome and Merry Christmas." Giving Ellison a once-over, he asked more soberly, "How're you doing, Jim?"

"Not too bad. Pretty good, actually," Ellison replied with a smile, sitting on the chair Blair pulled out for him and nodding at Janey. "Turns out, Junior here shows potential as a nursemaid."

Bending to kiss Janey's cheek, Blair snickered. "Don't get used to being waited on hand and foot, man," he warned with a feigned growl and a wink at his coach. "This nursemaid's contract -- oh, and by the way, I prefer the terms manservant or valet -- expires as soon as your doctor frees you from restraints."

"Daryl, you want to start ferrying stuff into the dining room?" Simon directed, still stirring, smiling at the familiar banter.

"Here, I'll give you a hand," Sandburg offered as he topped up Janey's glass and Simon's and helped himself to two more from the cupboard, filling them for Jim and himself. He gave Jim a sip, and then joined Daryl in carrying steaming bowls into the next room, the two of them ragging on each other as they compared views on the outcomes of the football game the day before.

"I haven't had a chance to properly thank you for all you did for Tommy and me," Janey said warmly to Jim. "And for putting Perkins behind bars." She shuddered. "What a terrible man."

"Just doing my job," he assured her, feeling no need for gratitude.

"Maybe so -- but you were also being a damned good friend," she insisted, lifting her glass to toast him.

"Yeah, he was," Blair added feelingly, coming back into the kitchen and resting a light hand on his partner's shoulder while, to forestall any more self-effacing protests, he lifted Jim's glass for another sip, before moving up beside Simon. "Let me stir while you do the honors with the turkey. Your home -- you carve."

"Thanks, Sandburg," Simon sighed, gratefully relinquishing responsibility for the gravy.

"Hey, Simon, that's really some centerpiece on the table, man," Blair said as he lifted the spoon and tasted the gravy, nodding in approval.

"Janey brought that," he replied warmly, and added for Jim, "Wait till you see it -- evergreen and red roses with a red candle in the centre. Trust a woman to remember beautiful flowers for the table!"

The last of the preparations were smoothly completed, and they all adjourned to the dining room. Janey recounted the events of the day before in the company of Amelie's parents, allowing as how maybe they weren't quite as stuffy as they'd seemed at the rink. At Blair's urging, Daryl happily described the day he'd spent with his Dad, enthusiastically listing all the neat stuff Simon had surprised him with, and how they'd gotten all dressed up after watching the game to go out for a fancy Christmas dinner at one of the most exclusive restaurants in town. "It was good," he allowed. "A little pretentious, maybe, but pretty neat."

"Pretentious?" Simon echoed, rolling his eyes. "For the prices they charged for barely enough food to feed a cat, I'd hope they'd be pretentious. Attitude is about the only thing they've got going for them."

"Well, it sure couldn't have been better than this spread," Jim laughed, surveying the table. "You guys have outdone yourselves. I'm impressed."

Blair agreed as he gave Jim another bite. "This dressing is really awesome."

"My great-grandmother's secret recipe," Daryl confided, beaming and leaving little doubt who had prepared that portion of their banquet, while Simon smiled at him fondly.

"And the gravy turned out fine," Janey observed with the deliberately exaggerated air of a gourmand.

"Yeah, well, I think that must've been Sandburg's touch," Simon allowed, shaking his head. "Mine never comes out this smooth."

"The secret is to use the strainer," Blair smirked impishly, giving Jim a sip of wine. "You know, that metal thing I got Daryl to dig out with all the little holes in it?"

"You want a chance to finish what's on your plate?" Simon growled threateningly.

"Ah, yes, sir, I sure do, sir," Sandburg replied with all the sober solemnity of a cowed foot soldier and added a snappy salute for good measure, reducing them all to laughter.

After dinner, Blair and Janey offered to do the cleanup, but Simon waved off their help. "Nah, that's Daryl's job," he said blithely.

"Ah gee, thanks a heap, Dad," the youth griped, but then grinned. "Seriously, it's okay," he assured them. "You're our guests tonight and we're really glad you came."

"Well, I'm glad I was invited," Janey said. She added with a confidential tone, "I enjoyed the food and the company much more than last evening's!"

Pleased, Simon ushered them into the living room for coffee and Daryl switched on the CD player, providing soft Christmas music as they settled in the comfortable room. A fire was burning in the grate and the huge tree decked with ornaments, garland and tinsel glittered with sparkling lights.

"That's a gorgeous angel," Blair observed, gazing appreciatively up at the chocolate brown denizen of heaven, garbed in robes of crimson and gold.

"Thank you," Simon replied, carrying in their cups of coffee on a tray. "I found her in the same place that I got my jazz players."

"Same artist?" Blair asked, taking two mugs and sinking down on the floor beside Jim.

"I think so, yes."

"He sure does beautiful work," the grad student said admiringly, and then launched into a story about artists and craftsmen he'd known around the world, talking enthusiastically about the significance of cultural and artistic differences through the ages. Daryl joined in, saying his art teacher at school had made some of the same points, while Jim, Janey and Simon listened to the easy flow of words, enjoying the warmth and camaraderie of the evening.

Jim, however, eventually decided they'd heard enough esoteric information about arts and crafts. "Chief, why don't you get the things we left in the hall?"

"Ah, good idea!" Sandburg agreed, bounding to his feet, there and back again in a trice, three small, wrapped gifts in his hands that he handed out to the others. Simon, seeing the lines of strain emerging around Jim's eyes and knowing his friends would want an early night, nodded to his son, who drew unopened gifts from under the tree.

"From Jim and me," Blair said with a smile. "Merry Christmas." Daryl enthusiastically echoed the sentiment as he presented a gift to each of their guests, "From me and my Dad!"

"Way cool," Daryl exclaimed delightedly, opening his first and holding up a computer game that he'd admired when out shopping with Blair over a month before. "Look, Dad!"

Simon smiled indulgently and sent a look of gratitude to his friends as he unwrapped his own gift. "Oh, now that's really something," he admired, opening the box to find a hand-made, stained-glass tree ornament of the crest of the Cascade PD.

"Brother Marcus, at Saint Sebastian's, made it for us," Blair told him, proud of his friend's work and pleased that Jim had suggested the idea.

Janey opened her gift to find a framed photo of Blair, one of the ones from the album Jim had had made up. They'd not had time to shop for her, but had agreed that afternoon that it was something she might like and they'd used a frame from one of Jim's old photos.

"We weren't sure you'd like it," Blair said uncertainly, "but it's only because of you that I was, well, able to do that show. Able to skate that well. Both from what I learned when you were my coach years ago, and well, last year, when you helped me so much. So, it might be me in the picture -- but it's all your accomplishment. You're a really great coach, Janey."

"And we're both grateful that you are," Jim added quietly. "And that you came as soon as I called last year. Meant a lot -- to both of us."

Tears blurred her eyes as she studied the photograph, remembering so much -- the joy of years past, the pride she'd felt watching Blair skate so magnificently just two days before. She blinked and sniffed, cleared her throat. Swiped at her eyes. "It's perfect," she murmured huskily, gracing them with a sweet smile. "Thank you, both of you. For including me in your lives and for being my good friends."

"Open the one from us," Daryl encouraged, instinctively sensing she needed something to bridge over the heightened emotions and back to the easy mood of the evening. "We, uh, hope you'll like it," he added uncertainly, for they didn't know her well, only how important she'd been in Blair's life, and he'd been the one tasked to run out to the mall that afternoon while his Dad was getting things ready for dinner.

"I'm sure I will," she smiled at him, as she opened the small parcel wrapped in shiny crimson paper. Inside, she found a jewelry box, and in it, a delicate, filigreed cameo. "Oh, my," she whispered, looking up startled. "This is ... this is too much. You're too generous." Daryl bobbed his head, pleased that she obviously liked it so much.

"No," Simon demurred, glancing at Blair. "We're also very grateful that you're such a helluva great coach."

"Now, it's your turn!" Daryl encouraged Blair as he waved at their presents.

For Jim, there was a set of magnificent flies, for the next time they went fishing together. He smiled and nodded happily when Blair held them up for his examination. "Hey, looks like I'll be well set-up this spring," he murmured, then looked at each of them. "Thanks."

And for Blair, there was a warm sweater, woven in a rich pattern of blues, greens and crimson. "Whoa," he crowed, holding it up and then pulling it on over his head, smoothing his hands over it. "This is great!"

"Yeah, well, maybe now you won't always be complaining that you're cold," Simon rumbled teasingly, but his eyes sparkled at seeing the kid's evident appreciation.

"You're not done yet," Janey said, as she reached for the bag she'd stashed beside her chair earlier. Pulling out two gifts, the centerpiece having been given to Simon and Daryl immediately upon her arrival, she handed them to Blair.

"You didn't need to do this," Jim said, surprised.

"Tommy and I wanted to -- and he said to thank you both, from him, too," she told them.

Blair opened Jim's first. "Oh, man," he sighed, "look at this." He drew out a pocket watch with an elegant chain and fob and held it up for Jim to see. "And it's engraved, Jim," he murmured, turning it over for his friend to read: JJE, Our hero, J&TT.

Jim's lips parted and he slowly shook his head, not sure what to say. Clearing his throat, he managed a husky, "It's beautiful. Thank you."

Then Blair opened his own present to find an exquisite dreamcatcher made of colorful gossamer threads and clear, crystal beads that shimmered like shards of ice in the light.

"So you'll always have your dreams, Blair," she told him quietly, "every single day of your life."

Touched, he unconsciously leaned against Jim's leg as he gazed at it and nodded, understanding all that the gift symbolized. "Thanks, Janey," he said softly, looking up at her and smiling.

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

Snow fell during the night, so they woke to a winter wonderland. Following the pattern established the day before, they began with a communal shower and then lingered over a hearty breakfast. Blair ran downstairs to get the paper, opening one section on the table for Jim to read, while he sat across the table perusing another section and turning pages for Jim when he was ready. After they'd both read the whole paper and discussed the news and sports of the day, Blair said, "They've done the plowing. You want to go for a ride, get some fresh air?"

"Yeah, good idea," Jim agreed, feeling restless.

Blair chose a route that would take them around the neighborhoods that took residential holiday decoration beyond seriously, and they admired the lights, laughing at some of the extravagances and ruefully wondering both how the residents afforded the power bill, and how much the neighbors resented the relatively heavy flow of sightseer traffic. After that, they went down to the harbour-front, to wander along the walkway in the crisp, clear air. Blair bought them some hot chocolate and they sat on a bench, quietly watching kids build a snowman.

When they got back home, Sandburg got a fire going, while Jim stood at the balcony doors looking out over the city. Aware that his friend seemed bothered by something, Blair moved to join him, and asked, "Whatcha thinking?"

Shrugging, and then wincing against the pull of still very tender muscles, Jim didn't answer immediately. Finally, with a sigh, he admitted, "I'm thinking that I don't feel like a hero."

"Ah, the watch," Sandburg murmured.

"Yeah." Turning to pace the room, he explained, "I just do my job, you know? They didn't need to get me something that special. Engrave it like that."

Watching him, Blair crossed his arms and nodded. "I get what you're saying, Jim, and for you, I guess it is just doing your job. But you are a hero to them. That doesn't mean that others who also save lives and go after bad guys aren't heroes, too -- they are. But you saved Tommy's life, man. Nobody else would have found him in time, and you know it. And, well, I don't want you to get a swelled head or anything -- but I see you at work. I know what you do. And look what you did the other day, to keep me from being hurt. I mean, who else would ever have done something like that? You are a hero."

Grimacing, Jim shook his head. "Some hero," he muttered, and then ground out, "Waking up in a cold sweat every damned night." Looking up, his gaze piercing, challenging, he demanded, "Do I yell? Is that why I wake you up, too?"

"Sometimes," Sandburg replied soberly. "Having nightmares doesn't take away from what you do, what you've done, Jim. It just means you're human, man."

Jim's gaze jerked away and the muscle in his jaw flexed. Drawing a deep breath, he shook his head. Wheeling away, he grated, "I shouldn't need ...." But his voice died away, his throat too tight, the memories too raw, not befitting how he saw himself, the man he believed himself to be.

"Shouldn't need what?" Blair asked softly, coming to stand beside him. His gaze narrowed as he studied Jim's rigid profile and then his eyes dropped as he considered what he thought the problem might be. "It's pretty weird, feeling vulnerable and helpless, isn't it?" he asked reflectively. "Especially when that is so not who you are. But nobody sees that, you know? Nobody sees that you wake up startled and still shocked by whatever horrible thing is happening in your dreams."

"You see it," Jim snapped. Swallowing, his tone less aggressive, he rasped, "You ... you help me calm down."

Lifting his head, Blair smiled slightly. Laying a light hand on his friend's back, he asked, "What? You don't think you should, uh, need someone to be there? Someone to tell you it's okay, that it's just a dream? That it somehow makes you weak?"

Looking away, he shook his head slowly. "I've, uh, I've handled my own nightmares for a lot of years, Chief. And I've had my share of bad dreams to deal with, believe me. Nobody's ... soothed me since I was a little kid -- younger than those kids we saw today."

"Yeah, I'm sure you have," Blair agreed, his voice low, solemn ... sad. Moving away, giving Jim space, he leaned against the back of the couch. "But you know what? You're not Superman, Jim. And even he had Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson helping him out. You're not some comic book character or an automaton made of steel. You're flesh and blood, and you're allowed to hurt. You're allowed to be scared sometimes. You're allowed to need comfort once in a while, not always having to be the one who gives it. You're even allowed to like it -- and even to ask for it. That doesn't make you weak, man. It just makes you human."

"You never say anything about it in the morning," Jim murmured.

"No, I don't, because I figured you didn't want to think about it, let alone talk about it," he replied with compassionate understanding. "You think I don't know this is hard for you? C'mon, man -- I've been living with you for two years now." Pushing away from the sofa, he moved to stand directly in front of Jim. "But if you think I haven't said anything because I think somehow that it's embarrassing, or that it's something childish, you're wrong, man. You're so wrong. You're the strongest, bravest man I've ever known. The fact that you have nightmares doesn't change that. The fact that talking to you, touching you, hell, soothing you, helps you relax enough to get back to sleep, doesn't change the way I see you." When Jim still wouldn't meet his eyes, he asked, "How many times did you come down here at night, when I was crying with pain and frustration and just couldn't get through the night alone? How many times did you soothe me back to sleep? Huh? Any idea?"

"No," he replied, lifting his gaze to Blair's.

"Seventy-three nights, man," Sandburg told him, his voice tight. "And those are just the nights I remember, not the ones when I was so out of it I didn't know what was going on except that everything hurt really badly."

"You kept count?" he exclaimed, astonished, wondering if he was being bullshitted.

"Those first four months were hell, man," Blair murmured, nodding. "And you were here, with me, through all of it." Looking away, he shrugged. "I'm the first one to say that crying doesn't make you less of a man, but I ... I don't cry much and sure don't in front of other people. I've been on my own a long time, too, Jim. I know it's not easy to be that vulnerable."

Studying him, Jim mused, almost to himself, "So that's how ...."

"How what?" Blair asked, looking at him soberly.

"I've wondered how you know what I need -- how you just seem to know."

Smiling wryly, Sandburg replied, "I had a good teacher, man. This friend of mine showed me how to be there for a friend in need. He showed me it's alright to admit it hurts, and that it's okay to be scared, and that it's okay to be comforted, especially at night. Especially when the nightmares are bad. And you know what? He always still seemed to respect me in the morning. One helluva guy, my friend. A man like Kipling described, you know? That man in a thousand, that you're really lucky if you have him as your friend."

Jim bowed his head, nodded slowly, and the tension drained from his body. Blair smiled gently and turned away. "So, you want to play a game of chess. Bet I beat you."

"You think so, huh?" Ellison replied, huffing a laugh. "Set up the board and we'll just see who beats whom."

"Great! Wanna make a bet?"

"Loser does the dishes for the next week," Jim replied, smirking.

"Oh, real good, Ellison." Blair shook his head. "I win, and you make dinner every night next week."

"Deal."

Laughing, Blair got out the board and set up the pieces. "You want a beer?" he called over his shoulder.

"Sounds good, Chief," Jim agreed, taking his seat at the table.

When they were settled, Blair hid a black and white knight in his hands behind his back.

"Left hand," Jim chose.

"Ah, the white knight, what else?" Blair teased.

"Pawn to King two," Jim directed, settling back in his chair. As he watched Sandburg move the piece for him, he said quietly, "You know, Chief, about that thousandth man?"

"Yeah?" Blair replied, looking up.

"I always figured there were two, not one, in a thousand," Jim said, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. "That's how they happened to be walking that road together."

Blair blushed and looked away in confusion. Swallowing, he moved his piece. "Thanks, Jim," he finally managed to reply. "Means a lot, man. Means a whole lot." Glancing up, he added impishly, "But I'm still gonna beat your ass."

Jim snorted and rolled his eyes. "Give me a drink of beer, hotshot. And then pawn to Queen one."

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

By the time Friday rolled around, the eighth day following his sojourn clinging to that catwalk, Jim couldn't wait to get his arms and hands back. Despite Blair's efforts to keep him amused, and his own very real gratitude, he'd had a tendency to be downright surly for the last day and a half. Once the pain had diminished, the value of having his arms and shoulders supported became harder to accept emotionally, however much he intellectually understood the need to avoid exertion too soon. He'd come close a couple times to shucking himself out of the pinned-up sleeves of his sweatshirt but Blair had taunted him into sucking it up and sticking it out, making it an issue of discipline and fortitude.

Jim had glared at his partner, but mentally gave the kid points for hitting the right buttons to keep him in line. Sometimes, he found it a little unnerving just how well Sandburg knew which buttons to push and when. Withdrawing into irritable silence the second time his own values and principles were used so effectively against him, he grumbled to himself about 'manipulative little dictators' and wondered if he really was so easily read and 'handled', or if it was just he inevitably gave in to his partner because he knew Blair only had his best interests at heart. His annoyance wasn't helped by the fact that Sandburg didn't seem the least bit fazed, antagonized or intimidated by his attitude.

"Just keep telling yourself you're never going to do something that dumb again," the kid reminded him, and then far too cheerfully suggested that while he was sulking, he could be thinking about what he'd be making for dinner every night of the next week.

Righteously, he pretended he hadn't heard the comments. Only another couple of hours and he wouldn't be so damned helpless anymore. Too bad the only opening his doctor had had was the last one of the day at two in the afternoon, but he supposed he was lucky to have gotten in over the holidays at all, let alone on New Year's Eve. God, he sure couldn't've faced going through another few days before getting the necessary medical sign-off.

Finally, finally, it was time to get on their coats and head out to see his doctor, to get his clearance to have the restraints removed and return to at least desk duty the following week, while he undertook the appropriate physical training regime to gradually build back muscle resilience. Blair buttoned up his coat and looped a woolen scarf around his neck and when he fidgeted, mildly said, "It's cold out. Wouldn't want you to get a chill."

As they were driving across town, Jim stared out the passenger side window, aching so badly to be 'free' that he could almost taste it.

"Guess you've got a whole list of things you'll want to do as soon as you get your arms and hands back, huh?" Sandburg reflected.

"You mean other than making dinner tonight?" he growled.

"Tonight and every night for the next week, yeah," Blair grinned cheekily.

"Yeah, I've got a list," he grunted.

"Bet I can guess what's at the top," his partner chirped.

"Bet you can't," Jim replied flatly and turned to give his friend an appraising look. "Want to bet who makes dinner for the next week?"

"Nuh uh," Blair snickered. "No, I can live without being told. After all," he shrugged, "once you come out of the doctor's office, and demand the keys so you can drive home, I'll know, won't I?"

Jim snorted and went back to staring out the window.

Twenty minutes later, absolutely delighted to not only have his arms once again free, but the loathsome metal brace on his hand removed, Jim sauntered out of the doctor's office. Blair tossed aside the magazine he'd been scanning. Standing, he fished the truck's keys out of his pocket and held them out with a grin.

"Here ya go, Jim," he said. "I'm really glad he set you free, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Jim replied as he approached. But he ignored the keys in the hand held out toward him and kept on coming, intent upon doing the first thing he'd promised himself he'd do as soon as his arms were once again free. He could see a spark of surprise and uncertainty in Sandburg's eyes as he moved into the kid's personal space -- and then he pulled Blair into a rough, tight hug. "Thanks, buddy," he murmured into Blair's curls, his voice very low, "for making it bearable."

Stepping back, he deftly snatched the keys from Blair's hand. "And," he said smugly, "I am not cooking tonight."

"Oh, hey, wait," Blair objected, though his voice was suspiciously hoarse and he sniffed before he lifted his head. "I won that bet, fair and square. You gotta cook dinner, man."

"Nope," Jim retorted blithely, looping his arm around Sandburg's shoulders to draw him down the corridor to the exit. "This evening, I'm taking my nursemaid out to dinner."

"Manservant," Blair retorted huffily, but ruined the feigned umbrage with a grin.

Jim chuckled and shook his head. Pushing open the door to the street, he cocked his head toward the truck. "C'mon, partner," he said with a warm smile, drawing Blair in tight to his side, glad to be able to do so, even happier to be able to say with easy assurance after the doubts and worries that had plagued him only the week before, "Let's go home. We need to get gussied up -- it's New Year's Eve, Chief, and we're going to celebrate!"

Finis

Comments, criticism, suggestions? Please e-mail Arianna.