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.

What About Now?

by Arianna

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

For Suzanne,
who requested a gen story based on
the same initial conflict scenario as my slash story,
Dare to be Tested.

Happy Birthday!

And thanks so much for offering your story
in the 2008 Moonridge Auction.

And thank you to
Bee, Debbie, Gerri, Mary, Sallye, Sandra, Shirley, and Terry
for your generous donations to Moonridge 2008.

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

Prologue

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," Sandburg grumbled as he hiked along in Ellison's wake through the steeply sloping forest to the bottom of the cliff Jim had selected for today's little adventure.

"A deal's a deal, Chief," Ellison called back over his shoulder, totally unrepentant. "You promised."

Blair rolled his eyes and swore soundlessly. This was SO not what he wanted to do. Hell, he didn't know for sure if he could do this... wasn't at all sure, as a matter of fact. Would Jim accept a simple 'no way, Jose!' and let it go? Not likely. Jim knew he would be afraid, was already afraid just thinking about it, so whining and whimpering wouldn't likely win any mercy. There was always the option of telling Jim 'why' he couldn't do this... but Blair really didn't want to go there. The memory hurt like hell and every time he thought about it, his stomach rolled and flipped, and he thought he'd be sick. No, no, don't think about it. Don't remember. Just, don't.

His jaw tight against the nausea that still threatened, Blair distracted himself from his dismal ruminations by thinking back over the conversation the week before that had landed him in this particularly unpleasant predicament in the first place.

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

Jim's forbearance, limited at best, was waning; his jaw muscles were bunched, his shoulders hunched, his eyes were narrowed in a kind of wincing glare and if smoke wasn't coming out of his nostrils, it was only because he hadn't been born a dragon.

"I know you're tired, man," Blair soothed his irritated partner. "But you know as well as I do that these tests are important. It's like everything else, you gotta keep practicing to keep sharp, to have the control you want. Like going to the gym to workout regularly to stay fit."

Grimacing, Ellison swallowed and looked away. Then, blowing out a long breath, obviously willing himself to relax, he nodded. "Yeah, I know ... but they're frustrating and smelling all that stuff is giving me a serious headache here, Chief."

"Okay, then let's move to linking sight with sound for a while," Sandburg proposed. "Or we could work on touch, if you'd rather. Would be easier, maybe, and not aggravate your headache."

"I'd rather take a break," Ellison mumbled grumpily.

"For an hour or so?" Sandburg suggested, willing to agree.

"For a year or so," Jim grated, shaking his head, knowing his protests were futile. They needed to do this. He knew it. But it felt like a pile-driver had taken up residence inside his skull.

"Okay, touch then," Sandburg offered, ignoring the routine grumbling, not willing to just give in. "Close your eyes and hold out your hands," he directed.

Once more shaking his head in resignation, muttering that he should have taken the break when it had been offered, Ellison shifted in the kitchen chair, and then spread his arms on the table, his hands palm up, while he closed his eyes.

And sighed again.

Heavily.

With exaggerated patience.

Pretending to be oblivious to the histrionics, Blair proceeded to place different substances and materials that he'd collected over the years into his partner's hands, taking note of the responses as Jim tried to identify them. He had small swatches of silk, fine linen, course linen and cotton, polyester; samples of different kinds of ashes; various liquids such as motor oil, olive oil, and scentless lotions made from different ingredients; several small buttons made of bone, wood and plastic simulations of both; and different kinds of grains. For nearly an hour, Jim focused his concentration on the sensations he was picking up through his fingertips, a couple of times cheating a little as he used his sense of smell to identify the products.

Finally, Jim really had had enough. And he didn't hesitate to say so.

"That's it, I'm done!" he snorted, the grain samples aggravating his sensitivities - or what they euphemistically told the world were his 'allergies'. Holding up his hands, he pushed away from the table to make the message crystal clear.

"For today," Blair replied agreeably, knowing when it was time to quit. "We've got to do more with the sight-sound links and that's what we'll work on tomorrow ... and then I want to explore more variations on sight-scent links, maybe using scent memory cues."

Squinting at his roommate, brushing at eyes that watered with irritation from the grain samples, Ellison demanded, "Chief, it's been more than four years! Aren't you ever going to run out of test ideas?"

Blair pondered that for a moment as if giving the perennial question serious thought, then shook his head, grinning a little as he replied, "Nope, don't think so."

"It's not fair, you know," Jim replied, whining in a manner reminiscent of a recalcitrant child as he tried to fend off his irritation with humor. "You don't have to suffer through any tests."

Blair wasn't unsympathetic. He knew some of the tests were unavoidably irritating and he could understand Jim's frustration. So, sensing an opportunity to win a little more cooperation from a sentinel who seemed to have a nearly pathological aversion to tests, an aversion that had only gotten worse with the passing years, Blair jumped at giving Jim a chance to think he could 'get even'. "No reason you couldn't give me tests, too," he smiled guilelessly. "But, I don't have the senses, man ... I'm not the one who has to hone the skills."

For a moment, Jim was silent, not having been serious about giving Sandburg tests but unwilling to let such an unexpected opportunity slip by. Thoughtfully, he pursued the conversation, "Not your sensory skills maybe ... but are you saying you'd be willing to take any test that I imposed on you?" he clarified.

"If it's for a good reason, and related to our work together, sure, why not?" Blair replied, figuring that Jim was likely to want him to read some book on criminology or police procedure or something ... maybe even get him to take some self-defense classes and then test him on what he'd learned. Though Blair had resisted Ellison's ongoing efforts to persuade him to learn more than the basic self-defense and hand-to-hand combat skills, he was ready to admit that resistance was futile and probably stupid. They were skills he should master given the situations they routinely got into, skills he should probably have developed long before now. And it wasn't like he was just an unpaid observer anymore. He was a Special Consultant with the Cascade PD, and he'd been thinking he should invest some effort in acquiring the physical proficiency demanded by the work. How tough could it be?

"You expect me to do anything you ask me to do," Jim pushed. "I don't get to say, 'This is stupid,' or 'I won't do it'. So I'd expect the same cooperation from you."

"Jim, why do you let me dictate this stuff, if you don't see the worth of it?" Blair asked with a weary sigh, knowing that Jim did think a lot of what he was asked to do was 'stupid'. But over time, the various tests had helped Ellison build up an amazing degree of acuity and control ... and with that, came increasing confidence and decreasing anxiety about the senses that had driven him to the edge of madness before they'd met.

Ellison looked Sandburg dead in the eye as he replied simply, "Because I trust you, Chief."

Well, what can I say to that? Blair wondered, as he packed up his testing supplies. Trust was an emotionally-charged word for them. God knew, they'd gone through more than enough hell to get to a point where Blair hoped Jim really did, finally, trust him, but he wasn't entirely sure. Trust - complete and unconditional - didn't seem to be something Jim gave anyone. Blair didn't know if it was because trust was inherently difficult for a sentinel, or if the inability was the result of Jim's personal history. As for what he'd just said, Jim wouldn't think of it as lie because Jim did trust him when it came to his senses and the tests Blair devised. It was the 'unconditional' part of trust that Jim had trouble with, that and his seemingly persistent belief that betrayal by anyone and everyone he knew - including Blair - was just a matter of time. That hurt, but Blair told himself it was part of the package, part of accepting Jim, of caring and being committed to him, of being Jim's friend. There were times, though, when he wondered if the day would come when he'd have had enough of perpetually doing his best to prove himself. Sure, he'd made mistakes - big ones - but none maliciously, none with the deliberate intent to betray Jim or to hurt him in any way.

Jim was watching him intently, waiting for his answer with a slightly wicked and definitely taunting smile of anticipation that dared him to agree to be tested in any way Jim deemed necessary. He looked so much like an eager little boy baiting his best friend that Blair wondered if he was worrying about nothing, if having chucked his academic career to protect Jim would have finally tipped the balance in his favor. He supposed he could ask, but they'd never really talked about it, except those few minutes in the hospital. They hadn't talked about a lot of things that mattered profoundly and that were all, ultimately and fundamentally, about Jim's inability to trust him.

But he didn't particularly want to venture into that discussion, especially not when Jim was already tired and on the edge of being seriously irritated. In any case, he'd said he'd be willing to be tested, and refusal to play what was basically a harmless game – one that he'd volunteered for, after all – would seem more than churlish. Besides, Blair had never had the same issues with trust that Jim did; he had always trusted Jim with his life. And, hey, maybe if he demonstrated what unconditional trust was often enough, Jim would get the hang of it and trust him back? I wish, Blair thought and, shaking his head, huffed a tired laugh.

"And I trust you, Jim ... so go ahead, figure out what test you want me to take and I'll take it," Blair replied as he stood away from the table. Carrying the box containing his supplies into his room, he added over his shoulder, "I'll take any tests you think are necessary."

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

Thinking back, Blair now figured the concept of trust was highly over-rated. He would have been better to have been suspicious and to have retained some right to refuse the 'test' Jim decided to pose. Ellison hadn't said anything for the rest of the week, but last night he'd gathered their camping gear together in preparation for today's 'test'. Once again, Blair hadn't worried, figuring Jim was going to teach him something about tracking or wilderness survival. Camping was a blast and he just assumed they were headed out on a basically fun weekend of hiking and fishing.

But when Blair had seen the coils of rope, the climbing harnesses, the small hammers and picks, and the sacks of specially designed mountaineering spikes in the back of the truck that morning, he'd paled. "Uh... what kind of test, exactly, did you have in mind, Jim?" he asked, his eyes wide with disbelieving anxiety as he looked up at his best friend.

"You're my partner now, right? Not just an observer anymore? So that means you have to be able to keep up with me, go where I go safely, right, Chief?" Jim had responded obliquely, busying himself with storing the rest of their gear in the back of the truck, and Blair was sure he was deliberately avoiding eye contact. What the hell did being 'official' have to do with anything? Jim knew damned well that he'd always done his best to keep up, to be where Jim needed him to be. That was just an excuse to justify making Blair do something that Jim had to know he'd be less than joyful about.

Swallowing, Blair had looked down again at the climbing gear. "Yeah, but you're not Spiderman ... how often do we need to scale the outside of downtown buildings?" he asked sharply, feeling the beginnings of real fear build in his chest.

"Not often, I'll grant you that," Jim replied, cutting his partner a quick look. He cringed, probably at the fear he saw in Blair's eyes. But, closing the tailgate, he faced Blair and argued, "But it's not unheard of to have to track a criminal into the mountains - you know that - or to have to support search and rescue efforts, so climbing may well be required at some point or other. When we have to do it, it'll be too late to be certain that we can do it."

"Jim, you know I'm afraid of heights, man," Blair protested, blossoming fear draining his face of color.

"I know, Chief," he replied, not unkindly. "But I've also seen you climb trees, scamper around on fire escapes, climb out of a high rise window to escape terrorists... you can do it. But your fear makes doing anything involving heights dangerous for you. We're going to work on that, the fear, so that you can let it go. So you'll be safer in similar situations should they ever happen again."

"I don't want to do this, Jim," Blair stated, clearly and unequivocally.

"You gave me your word that you'd take any tests I posed for you, so long as they were related to the work we do," Jim replied steadily, with no hint of compromise in his voice. "You said you trusted me."

Blair felt his gut clench as he looked away. "That's not fair, man," he grated.

"Who told you life would be fair, Junior?" Jim retorted. "C'mon, time's a'wasting here. Let's go." He cut the conversation short as he climbed into the truck.

"Nobody ever told me that, man," Blair sighed softly. "I wasn't talking about 'life'... I was talking about 'you'." Unsure whether or not Jim had heard him over the sound of the engine starting up, Blair swallowed and closed his eyes.

And then he got into the truck.

He'd given his word. He could do this. If it killed him, he could do this.

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

So here they were, coming out of the line of trees into a small clearing at the base of a humongous cliff that looked practically sheer. So much for hoping that Jim would have chosen the equivalent of a 'bunny hill' for this excursion into Blair's worst nightmares.

"You can't be serious," Blair groaned, looking up, feeling more than a little queasy.

"I'll show you how to rig your harness," Jim said, pulling out the equipment, ignoring Blair's despairing comment.

"Jim, please, man ... I really don't want to do this," Blair tried one last time, not hesitating to beg. Memories flashed and nausea spiked. "People get killed climbing."

"People get killed crossing the street, Chief," Jim replied dryly. "Come here. Let's get this on you."

Jim wasn't going to let go of this; he wasn't going to accept 'no, I can't' for an answer.

Blair felt something snap inside.

Fear and the desperate sense of being trapped ran head on into his sudden fury that Jim was going to make him do this. There was no room to negotiate, no compassion for how hard this was for him, not even any interest or curiosity as to why he so didn't want to do this. Jim was going to make him go up that cliff; and once they were up, they'd have to come back down again which wasn't a whole lot easier. There was nothing quite like the sensation of stepping off into oblivion to rappel down a mountainside.

Sandburg fought the roiling of emotions that churned in his gut, making him feel utterly sick. He willfully pushed stark, wretched memories away and swallowed the bile that burned in the back of his throat before he choked on it. His jaw tight, he closed his eyes for a moment, centering himself, focusing on trying to deepen his shallow, too rapid breathing. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the harness in Jim's hand.

There was no way out of this. No matter how much he hated this, he was going to have to do it.

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

Jim watched his partner's struggle to master his fear and he felt bad about putting Sandburg through this. Maybe ... maybe it hadn't been such a good idea. It sure wasn't as much fun as Jim had anticipated it would be to make Blair suck it up, to do something he didn't want to do. And there truly was purpose to this challenge; Blair did have to overcome his fear of heights, or that fear could get him killed someday. He was just about to reassure Blair that, as hard as it looked, there was no way Jim would let him fall, but Blair's eyes went hard. Though his chalky complexion and thundering heartbeat betrayed what this was costing him, he reached out to viciously yank the harness from Jim's hand. "Fine," he snapped. "Then let's just get it done."

When Jim moved to help him, Blair roughly pushed his hand away. "I know how to get into it, Jim. Get your own on and then we can check each other out," he said, his tone cold and taut with control.

Surprised, not so much at the tone or the gesture given that he knew Sandburg wasn't thrilled about this, but rather that someone afraid of heights quite evidently did know how to wear the harness, Jim's eyes narrowed speculatively. As he slipped on his own, and fastened the safety clips, he couldn't resist asking, "When did you learn how to wear a climbing harness, Chief?"

Blair leveled a hard stare at him as he replied flatly, "I said I'm afraid of heights, man. I never said I don't know how to climb."

Jim's brow quirked at that information and he knew there was a story here, but Sandburg didn't seem to be in the mood for a lot of questions. For a moment, Jim again wondered if he was pushing this too hard. Sure, part of this was, admittedly, to get a little of his own back for all the endless hours of tests Sandburg thought up to torment him. But a much larger part was his firm belief that they might well have to do something like this someday to save someone's life, so he nodded, deciding to go ahead with the climb. If Sandburg already knew something about climbing, that would make it all that much easier to show him that he didn't have to be afraid ... and that would make him safer in the future when he was confronted with having to be in a situation that required him to function some distance above solid ground.

Blair remained silently sullen as they checked out one another's gear, and then he attached a sack of spikes and a small pick-hammer to his belt, and threaded the end of one coil of rope through his harness, tying it off before looping the bulk of it over his shoulder. Then, wordlessly, he strode to the practically sheer cliff face, reached high to hammer in a spike, and began to search out hand and foot-holds further up before starting to climb.

"Hold on, Chief," Jim called to him. "We haven't got ourselves roped together yet."

"No rope," Blair grated without turning, in a tone that brooked no argument.

"Uh, uh, that's unsafe and unacceptable," Jim replied moving forward with the full intention of joining them together with a safety line.

Whirling on him, Blair looked like he was ready to actually physically punch him if he got a step closer. "I SAID no rope, and I meant it," Blair snarled. "If you try to rope yourself to me, I swear, that's it. We're done... and I mean, we are done."

Shocked by the rage flashing in Blair's eyes, Jim stopped in his tracks. "You mean we're done with the climb? That you'd refuse to do this?"

"No, I mean we're done as partners, roommates and friends," Blair clarified, only too obviously meaning it. "You want to climb this fucking wall so bad, fine, we'll climb it. But I will not be roped to you. Is that clear?"

"Chief," Jim replied, his voice soft and cajoling. "That's not safe..."

"That's the only way I'm going to do this," Blair replied, holding his ground.

"This is just your way to get me to agree not to make you climb, isn't it?" Jim demanded, thinking he'd figured out the game. Blair knew he would never willfully put him in a life-threatening situation, so all these histrionics were likely just so much manipulation.

Jim saw Blair search his eyes and, by the expression on his partner's face, he knew Blair could see that he believed Blair was just trying to weasel his way out of this test, despite the fact that he'd given his word. Well, fine, empty threats had never impressed him. Blair had stuck with him through thick and thin, and wouldn't quit on him just because he didn't want to climb a cliff. Besides, when they got back down, and Blair saw his fears were irrational, he'd feel great about his achievement.

Blair glared furiously at him for a long moment and then sharply shook his head. "Fuck you, Ellison," Blair rasped, more angry than Jim could ever remember him being, his voice sounding almost strangled by the fear and fury that lodged in his throat. God, Blair actually looked like he hated him.

Before Jim could reply or reach out to grab him and hold him back, Blair turned and began to climb.

Climbed like an expert who knew exactly what he was doing.

Jim watched in astonishment as Blair moved steadily up the cliff, his actions controlled, competent ... even elegant. What the hell was going on here? How could Blair climb like that if he was so afraid of heights? Silently, beginning to wonder if maybe he should have asked Blair why he was afraid before insisting on this little escapade, Jim began to climb in the wake of his friend.

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

By the time they'd made their way up and had rappelled back down the cliff, it was late afternoon. In all that time, not a word had been spoken. Blair had gone up and come back down in record time, never once hesitating or making a wrong move, leaping into the final jump to the ground at the same time that Jim pushed off from the rock wall for the last time. Once on the ground, Blair unsnapped his harness and dropped it, the hammer, his remaining supply of spikes, and the rope, to the gravel at the base of the cliff. Whirling away as if he couldn't get away from the rock wall - and Jim - fast enough, he picked up his pack and started back down the trail.

Jim let him go as he packed up the gear. They'd picked out their camping spot on the way in so he knew he'd find Blair there. It was too far to go back to the park entrance to get the truck that night; while Blair might be angry, he wasn't foolhardy ... he wouldn't just keep going, knowing the path was dangerous in the dark.

And he was angry. Jim had never seen Blair like this. Cold with fury. For hours.

Ellison looked up at the cliff a last time as he stood and hitched the coiled rope and then his pack over his shoulder. Thinking about the climb, about Sandburg's behavior and competence, he knew that there was something serious going on here that he didn't begin to understand.

He was a detective. He didn't like mysteries. Striding down along the trail, Jim was determined to get to the bottom of this one.

By the time Jim arrived at the campsite, Blair had gathered wood and gotten a fire started. The day had been cool and under the trees, as the day dipped toward evening, there was already a chill in the air. Wordlessly, without so much as a glance at one another, they sorted out the chores. Jim erected the two-person tent while Blair prepared their meal. From time to time, Jim eyed his uncharacteristically silent partner, waiting until the rage abated, biding his time.

Dusk deepened into night as they ate in silence. Blair mostly picked at his food before scraping it into the fire; his anger still seemed to be burning as hot as the flames. Deciding that talking about it might help him calm down, Jim poured the coffee into their mugs and asked mildly, "Care to tell me what the hell is going on?"

"We've finished eating and now we are about to drink some coffee," Blair replied, his tone sarcastic, his eyes still dark and stormy.

Sighing, Jim shook his head. "Why the mystery, Sandburg?" he asked. "Why didn't you tell me you knew how to climb before we got up here?"

Flashing a hard look at his partner, Blair challenged, "One, you never asked. Two, you probably would have made me prove it anyway."

"Chief, I don't have a clue what's going on here," Jim exclaimed. "I know you're furious ... but I honestly don't understand why. Nor do I understand how someone who climbs like a pro is as nervous about heights as you claim to be."

"I don't just 'claim' it, man," Blair snapped. "I hate being too far from the ground; makes me want to vomit just to think about it. I cannot believe you made me do that! Knowing that it was something that, that I ... that makes me ... I can't believe you did that to me! God, Jim ... I know you don't like taking the tests I devise, but they help you, man. I don't ever do anything to you that would really hurt you."

Ellison opened his arms in a gesture of helplessness. "Look, I know you don't consider my reasons valid. But, I've seen you deal with heights. I know they make you nervous but you don't have a pathological terror of them. We might really have to climb someday, to save someone's life."

"When have I ever - ever - not done what you needed me to do, or gone where you needed to me to go, whether I was afraid or not?" Blair challenged harshly.

Jim sighed and shook his head. "Look, I thought coming out here, working with you, would help you get past the nervousness. I didn't do this to hurt you, Chief," he insisted. "I did this to help ... like you help me. To show you that you could do it, that you could master it, the fear. Otherwise, when we get into situations where you have to contend with heights, your fear could distract you, and cause you to have an accident, to fall. I don't want that to ever happen. I had no idea that you were an expert climber, that you already knew you could do it, if you ever had to."

The rationale made sense and Blair could accept - albeit reluctantly and grudgingly - that it was grounded in concern for his well being. But that didn't make what he'd had to endure that day any easier. And Jim could say what he wanted about being all concerned about him. There were any number of tests Jim could have given him that were a whole lot more related to the work they did every damned day than climbing some mountain. Jim knew he didn't much care for guns, and very reasonably could have said that he needed to learn how to handle them, how to shoot what he aimed at. Or he could have tested his fitness level, his ability to quickly disarm someone or defend himself. But, no, Jim had decided he had to master his fear of heights. And why? Not because he was genuinely concerned, but because he wanted to get even, wanted to make Blair do something he'd really hate doing, just like Jim hated the sensory tests. But, then, hadn't that been his reason for offering Jim the opportunity to test him? To get even? Well, Jim had certainly done that, in spades.

Blair looked away, his anger and hurt still raw. "There's a lot you don't know about me, man," he stated flatly, and pressed his mouth closed, already regretting the words, the opening they gave Jim to probe for more. He should have stuck with remaining silent.

Jim's eyes narrowed as he gazed across the flames at his friend. "Then tell me what I don't know," he urged. "Tell me how you learned to climb like that when you hate heights as much as you do."

Blair swallowed as he closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to retreat back to silence, knowing it was probably too late. But, God, he so did not want to go back to that day, talk about it, remember it, the horror of it. Didn't want to even think about ... about....

"What happened, Chief?" Ellison asked softly, seeing the anger disintegrate into remembered anguish, truly dismayed that he'd inadvertently, and completely unintentionally, caused Sandburg such apparently unnecessary but acute pain. "Please ... tell me."

"It's not a happy story, Jim," Sandburg murmured, lifting his troubled gaze back to his friend's eyes.

"I think I can take it," Jim replied, his tone encouraging, though he felt a shaft of sharp concern in his gut at the haunted look in Blair's eyes.

But can I? Sandburg wondered as he stared into the darkness, legs crossed, his forearms resting on his thighs as he unconsciously twisted his fingers together, debating whether to explain or not. If he didn't, the shadow would always be between them now anyway; Jim would always think he was hiding something, and that Blair hadn't trusted him enough to bare his soul. They'd learned the hard way that not trusting one another, not being open, only brought them to grief, shadows of misunderstandings growing into demons that tore them apart. Now that it had begun, Blair wasn't sure he really had any choice but to go on. But he'd tried so hard to keep those moments, those terrible awful moments and ... and what happened after, buried deep, because remembering just hurt so damned badly.

But there was Jim, looking at him so expectantly, waiting to hear the story, trusting him to explain, so certain that he would. How many times had the situation been reversed and he'd asked Jim something, something he really needed to know to help the man master his senses, to try to understand him better, only to be brushed off, told to mind his own business, or that it wasn't important, or that Jim didn't 'want to go there'? But Jim expected him to just spit it out, just like he'd expected him to climb that damned cliff, and just like he'd expected him to be there whenever Jim needed him all these years, despite the fact that he'd only been 'an observer'. Hell, he'd never been just 'an observer' - that was just the story to explain his presence at Jim's side. He'd always been a full participant in their partnership; the only difference now was that he was getting paid for it. He'd taken Jim's damned test, but it wasn't enough. Now the man wanted more, even though Blair had made it clear he didn't want to talk about it. Jim couldn't just trust that he had his reasons and leave him be.

Blair felt resentment, bitter and cold, implacable, grow in his gut, mingling with the furious anger he'd felt for hours. Staring at Jim, he thought about how all this had resulted from Jim's antipathy for the tests that Blair put him through, tests devised to help him, not hurt or humiliate him. What if he'd refused to climb that cliff? As if he didn't know. He would never have heard the end of it, never. Jim would have always thrown it back into his face whenever Blair wanted to put him through his paces, to practice his control – the control that was so vitally important to Jim, and so very necessary. And if Blair refused to explain it all to Jim's satisfaction, Jim would keep at it, keep trying to find out what was at the root of Blair's aversion to heights. Not that he'd ever exhibited much - hell, any - interest in Blair's past before, and not just his past. Jim hadn't ever been interested in his work at Rainier, either, except insofar as it had intruded into his availability or disturbed Jim when he was trying to sleep late at night.

Once again, it was up to Blair to prove himself, justify himself, and he was so goddamned sick of jumping through Jim's hoops.

Jim thrust a stick into the fire, and the flames shot up, fiery ashes spiraling into the air. Then he threw his hands up as he drawled, "Okay, fine. You don't want to tell me, don't trust me with your deep, dark secret, about how some mountain defeated you or some fellow climber didn't know what they were doing and scared the shit out of you, fine. But it better not affect how you do your job. So, whatever it is, you'd better get over it, Sandburg."

"Get over it?" Blair choked, glaring at him. "You bastard." His trembling hands clenched and he crossed his arms to restrain himself from lunging across the fire to drive a fist into that sanctimonious face.

"Oh, so now I'm a bastard. For what, exactly? For making you take a test you didn't want to do even though it was for your own good, or for caring enough to want to know why heights bug you so much, huh?" Jim goaded, pissed off and impatient - or maybe just upping the ante, giving him another test, daring him to tell his story.

"You want to know so bad? Fine. Get over it? I don't think so. Not in this lifetime," Blair grated, vowing this was the last time, the very last time he ever jumped through any hoops for Ellison. His breathing fast and shallow, feeling cornered and fed up, Blair stared at Jim and then through him. "I did a lot of climbing when I was a kid," he said, distant and cold, determined to keep it as matter-of-fact and succinct as possible. "I used to love it, if you can believe that. Taking on greater challenges, climbing higher and higher, to see the world laid out at my feet, to see so far ... the majesty of it took my breath away. Naomi used to despair of me, certain that I'd get myself killed one day in the mountains. But ... I just loved it, you know? Most of the time, I used to climb alone, but my second year at Rainier, I met a guy who loved to climb as much as I did."

For a moment, a faint smile of memory graced his lips and his tone softened as he recalled, "We went out into the mountains every weekend. Jess was a couple of years older than me ... he was the first, maybe the only, real friend I've ever had. Moving around so much, there was no chance to make any lasting friends. And when I started at Rainier, I was so much younger that I didn't fit in anywhere but the classroom. But Jess ... Jess was special. I didn't have to prove anything to him, and he didn't care that I was younger than him and maybe smarter than he was. He accepted me as I am. We were pretty much inseparable."

He paused for a moment, to swallow again, blinking rapidly against the sudden burning in his eyes at the memories.

Blair saw Jim flinch. "What happened to him?" Jim asked, his tone softer. "Did he fall?"

Sandburg stiffened, his shoulders tightening as he replied, "This is hard enough to get through, Jim. Just let me tell it in my own way, okay?"

"Okay, Chief," Jim apologized, sounding genuinely contrite. "Take your time."

Blair nodded, and then resumed quietly, "Anyway, we got to be really good friends; better than friends, actually. Almost like brothers." He paused and then plunged on, "He, uh, he loved me ... and I loved him. I think that's partly why he..."

But his voice cracked, and he had to pause again to take a deep breath to steady himself. He didn't have to look at Jim to know his friend had gone very still.

Frowning against the memories, staring into the flames to avoid Jim's eyes, Blair cleared his throat of the lump and carried on, his voice hoarse, "One day, we were high on the north face of Mount Rainier. Jess was climbing above me and we were roped together because he always insisted on that for safety purposes. The wind shifted suddenly, buffeting us violently and unexpectedly. Jess slipped and lost his grip... and, yeah, he fell. The force of his fall yanked the two spikes between us from the wall, leaving only the one I was just hammering in to support the both of us. You're a climber. You know one half-imbedded spike can't support the sudden load of a man's full weight, not for long. When he hit the end of the safety rope, it jerked hard and I got half-pulled from the rock face, so now some of my weight was also dragging on our single anchor."

Blair felt so cold, so miserable. Shivering, he huddled into himself. Lost in the memories, he went on. "He'd, uh, fallen to a point where there was a depression in the wall, and he couldn't reach it to hammer in a new pin without swinging and putting more pressure on the rope. I re-established my own grip and balance, but his weight was still putting too much pressure on the spike ... we both felt it begin to pull away from the wall."

Looking past Jim into the dark forest beyond, Sandburg's mind was filled with the memories that would always haunt him and his eyes blurred with unconscious tears. His voice cracked again, verged on breaking, as he described what had happened in a breathless rush to get it out before the memories tore him apart. "It all happened so fast, you know? So incredibly fast. Seconds, not even minutes. I yelled at him to just hang tight and I'd get us better anchored and then he could swing into the wall. But the rope kept jerking as I was hammering the spike, to fully anchor it, and the rock around it started to crack. So, I started hammering in another one, as fast as I could. But I wasn't fast enough. The rope jerked again, and he knew we were slipping... that it wouldn't hold both of us long enough."

Lost in the past, Blair was no longer seeing Jim, or the fire or forest, only the horror of that day as it played out again in his mind, like a nightmare but more real, more vivid. He heard Jim say, "It's okay. You don't have to go on." But it was too late to stop. It wasn't okay. Jim wanted to hear the story so now he had no choice but to hear it all. The memories were coming hard and fast, unstoppable, and Blair just had to get them out, get it done. To do less now that he'd gotten this far would be disloyal to Jess.

"Jesse shouted to me that it was no good. He... he said he was sorry... and that he loved me," Blair whispered hoarsely, rocking himself against the pain. Closing his eyes, he swallowed hard. "I tried to tell him to stop, I begged him not to ... but he ... oh, God, Jim ..." His voice broke. Lifting a hand to cover his eyes, he choked, "He cut the rope between us - one hard fast slice - and I saw ... I saw him fall." He'd watched Jesse drop so fast, so silently. Then he had screamed and screamed; screamed until he was hoarse and blind with horror.

A tear trembled on his lashes, then fell to trickle down his cheek. Overcome with anguish, mired in the memories, Blair scrambled up from the fire and stumbled to the edge of the clearing where he dropped to his knees. Doubling over, one hand covering his mouth, he fought the sobs and the overwhelming nausea the memories had invoked, but he was fast losing the battle for a last vestige of control. He dropped his hand to brace himself on the ground and wrapped his other arm tightly around his body; his gut cramped and he vomited violently, retching again and again, as if his body was trying to forcibly eject the memories of watching Jesse fall and....

Jim was suddenly there, wrapping one strong arm around him, the other hand holding back his hair. When the retching finally stopped, he pulled Blair close, his chin on Blair's bowed head, murmuring over and over, "Easy, Chief, easy," and he held on for long minutes until the shuddering of Blair's body began to abate and he'd regained some measure of control. "You okay?" Jim asked softly.

Blair shook his head and jerked away, swiping at the tears streaking his face and pushing his fingers through his hair, tucking it behind his ears before crossing his arms tightly over his chest. Unable to look at Jim, he murmured brokenly, "He was a great guy. So bright and funny... so gentle. Jesse couldn't even bring himself to swat a mosquito. H-he said they needed to live, too, and it wasn't their fault they'd been created to live on the blood of other beings. Said he had enough to spare. So fast... it happened so fast...."

His whispers choked again on the memories, and then he sighed. "I don't really want to go into all the details of 'after'. It was pretty grim. Once I got back down, I couldn't leave Jesse or animals would have got at him, you know? So, I stayed and eventually they sent out searchers when we didn't make it back. It was dark by then but I heard a plane and I sent up a flare ... and, well, finally, the next day we got airlifted out."

His throat tightened again as he remembered the rest of that grueling night, alone with his friend's battered body, alone with the horror and grief and guilt, feeling helpless and so very, very sad that he'd never have the words to express how he'd felt. "I haven't been able to climb since; haven't been able to stand heights since. When... when you wanted to rope us together, all I could think of was how I couldn't ... couldn't climb that damned cliff if I had to face that again, if we'd had an accident. If you'd cut yourself free..." Sandburg shuddered again. "Or even if I'd been the one who had to drop ... I couldn't let you live with what I've been living with. With memories like ... I just couldn't."

"Oh God, kid," Jim said quietly, pallid in the stark light of the fire, his eyes dark. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Emotionally exhausted, feeling hollow, Blair sighed and looked up at the star-spangled sky. "I don't know. I've never told anyone, and at first, I guess I couldn't believe you were going to make me do it. I told you ... I told you twice that I really did not want to do it. God dammit, I begged you! But you wouldn't back off, and I got so mad I couldn't see straight."

"I didn't know. I'd never have made you go through this...."

Blair lowered his gaze from the sky to face Jim. "Didn't know?" he echoed, angry and bitter. "I guess not. You don't know much at all about me, about my life. You've never asked. Never been interested, unless it had something to do with you, like did I have classes that would get in the way of meeting you at work. Any time I did talk about my past or my interests, you either mocked me or made it clear you weren't interested, if you listened at all and didn't just cut me off."

Jim went very still. His gaze flickered over Blair's face and his expression flattened. Then he gave a single sharp nod as his gaze slid away and he stood to move back to his own place on the far side of the fire. After a moment, Blair pushed himself to his feet and went to their cooler, to get a bottle of water. He rinsed out his mouth and then he, too, went back to the fire. He was so damned cold that he crowded as close to its warmth as was safe.

Silence fell between them. Still caught in his memories, Blair rubbed his eyes and sighed. "It was the worst thing that's ever happened to me. Worse than dying; sure worse than giving up my career. I'll never get over it; never forget him. God, I don't want to ever forget him, or that he gave his life to save mine."

For a long time, Blair sat quietly staring into the flames, thinking about Jesse, mourning his loss. Then, swallowing, he tucked Jesse's memory away in his heart. Jess was gone, had been gone a long time now, and there was no way to ever change that.

He looked across the fire at Jim, and wasn't entirely surprised to see that the wall of 'Ellison avoidance' had fallen over Jim's expression, and was evident in his rigid posture. Jim wasn't particularly comfortable with extreme emotion, he knew that. And Blair supposed that Jim was hurt by some of the things he'd said in the heat of anger. But he really couldn't bring himself to care. God knew, he'd been hurt more than once by things Jim had said. He'd gotten over it. Jim would, too.

Blair wished they weren't stuck out in the woods with nowhere to go to get away from one another, at least for a while, until they'd both calmed down. His room back at the loft wasn't much more than a good-sized walk-in closet, but at least it had a door that he could close and have some privacy - or the illusion of privacy. Living with a sentinel, he'd given up on the reality years before.

Sometimes, he wondered how they managed to put up with each other, both being so different with nothing, really, in common - well, except for the whole sentinel thing. Blair didn't understand it, or why, but from almost the first moment he'd felt such a connection with Jim that he had risked his own life to save the man when he'd zoned on that Frisbee. Almost from the beginning, Blair had felt that his friendship with Jim was the most important reality of his life,; he knew that he'd give his life in a heartbeat for James Joseph Ellison, without hesitation, with no regret.

But there were times when he sure didn't like the man much, and this was definitely one of those times.

He was equally certain there were times when Jim didn't much like him, either, in large measure because Ellison didn't bother to even try to hide his irritation or impatience ... or absolute and complete loss of trust.

Sometimes – increasingly often, unfortunately – he thought that it didn't really matter if they liked one another or not. They were just two people caught in a situation and bound together by chance who were trying to do the best they could.

Even so, Blair was pretty sure it wasn't healthy to want to beat the crap out of the guy.

Huddled by the fire, staring out into the darkness, Jesse and Jim both filling his mind, he found himself wondering if the reason he couldn't just give up on Jim, and wouldn't just walk away was because he owed Jess a life he couldn't repay. Did that make any sense? He felt guilty for Jess's death - if he'd just hammered that pin in faster or better or something, anything, maybe Jess ... maybe....

If he left Jim, and something happened that he could have prevented, well, Blair couldn't even face the thought, let alone such a possible reality. So he was committed to Jim, and that's just the way it was.

Stiff and shivering, he had no idea of how much time had passed. On the other side of the fire, Jim occasionally tossed on another log, but he gave no indication of being aware of or interested in Blair's presence. Deciding that they quite evidently had nothing more to say to one another that night, Blair pushed himself to his feet and moved to the tent. The furious anger and caustic bitterness he'd felt were real and he believed justified. But he couldn't afford to harbor those feelings or their partnership, as fragile as it was now, would never work. Numb and exhausted, he no longer felt much of anything, except a vague notion that something had to change.

Crawling into his sleeping bag, he curled toward the canvas wall. God, he was tired. Too tired to think. Too tired to feel. Hoping desperately that things would seem better, clearer in the morning, he craved sleep. But there was something ... something ... and then the thought emerged out of the fuzziness of his mind. Jim had been staring at those flames for an awfully long time. Sighing, really not feeling up to dealing with any more problems that day, he asked, "You're not zoning, are you?"

"No."

The fire burned low. Jim was still sitting beside it when he drifted into sleep.

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

Four years. Four years since Blair had climbed that tree, bitching about magpies and being afraid of heights. Four years and he'd never asked why. Nor had that been the only occasion when he'd been aware of Blair's fear. Frowning, he remembered impatiently shrugging off the kid's death grip in the chopper when they'd gone after Ventriss and his girlfriend. That had been what? Seven, eight months ago? He hadn't asked then, either. Hadn't even had a passing concern or curiosity as to why Sandburg was so afraid of heights. Why? Had he just written it off as a phobia? No, no, he remembered thinking at the time that if it was a phobia, Sandburg wouldn't have been able to climb that tree. But he hadn't cared enough to ask. Hadn't thought it was important. Was it when he'd heard Blair doing verbal battle with Lash, he'd just assumed the kid's fear resulted from falling out of ... what was her name? Danbury? No, Danbush. From falling out of Mrs. Danbush's tree?

Why, in all these years, hadn't he asked Sandburg more questions about his past? About what his life had been like? He was a detective; he really didn't like mysteries. But he'd let a stranger, a mystery, move right into his home and hadn't asked him any questions, hadn't found out anything about him; hadn't even checked to see if there were any priors or wants or warrants. Why? Because he'd needed the kid so much that he didn't dare risk finding out something he wouldn't want to know?

Or was it because he'd gone through that photo album with Naomi not all that long after Sandburg had moved in, and had seen pictures of a happy little kid with too much hair, and he hadn't wanted to know anything more about that kid being dragged from place to place behind her, or what that had been like for him? Blair made the occasional crack about wannabe dads, or at least men who wanted to please Naomi, taking him to games, sitting in box seats. Jim wondered if he had really believed it had all been a fun adventure or if he had just not wanted to know, just not been interested enough to care? Or was it, as time passed, he felt he'd taken the measure of the man and didn't need to know anything more?

Or was he, as Blair had pretty much spelled out, just a self-absorbed, self-centered, selfish jerk?

God, how could he not know that Blair had experienced such a hideous tragedy? He'd been what? Seventeen, maybe eighteen, when it had happened? Had Blair had anyone to talk to about it? He'd said he'd been alone except for Jesse. Had he blamed himself after? Had anyone else blamed him, like maybe Jesse's family? Jesus, living through that, having to climb down the mountain and sit with the body ... something like that would destroy some men. They'd never be the same afterward.

Maybe Blair had never been the same, either. How would he know?

Jesus ... were there other horrors lurking in his partner's past, like landmines waiting to explode if he took the wrong step and set them off?

Blair was right, he didn't know much about the kid's past, and yet Blair knew just about everything there was to know about him. Blair knew about Peru, and not just what had been in the magazine article. He knew about Jack, and the guilt Jim had carried for years. He knew about his family, about his mother leaving and Bud, and about the rancor and misery that had driven him to leave home and never look back. He knew about ... hell, was there anything left Sandburg didn't know about? He'd found out because he was interested, and he cared.

Jim had always thought he was the silent one, the one who hid everything inside, and it turned out that it was the kid, with his nearly non-stop talking, who was the man who really never gave anything away. Who would have pegged Sandburg as the strong, silent type? Would Blair have shared more if he'd ever felt Jim was interested? Though Blair had said as much, Jim wasn't all that sure there wasn't more to it.

Nearly always cheerful with that big smile and guileless eyes, Sandburg talked all the time, about good things, positive things, things he found fascinating. But he didn't talk about the bad stuff, not from before they met or since.

Why hadn't he noticed that? In the last almost year, why hadn't Blair ever talked about being kicked out of the loft, or dying - though he might have, if Jim hadn't shut him down in the hospital - or about finding him in a lip-lock with the kid's murderer. Or about what that press conference had really meant for him, what it had cost him, other than those few moments when he'd tried to minimize it all in the hospital? Oh, his perpetual Pollyanna routine had worn a bit thin in the last year; he'd been angry and there were times when he'd seemed fed-up, even contemptuous when Jim wouldn't admit to anyone else that he was seeing a ghost, but he hadn't ever talked about any of the terrible things that had happened to him. Okay, he had, sort of, in terms of how those things had impacted on Jim, but not in terms of what they'd meant to Blair. God damn it, Jim knew anyone surviving that kind of trauma needed to talk about it, needed support. Trauma? God, say it: the kid had been murdered, and admit it: Blair had been betrayed by the one who owed him the most loyalty. But despite knowing better, Jim had let the silence go on ... and on. Why hadn't he challenged it? Because it was so much easier not to? To just let it all go? Pretend it never happened? Because, deep down, he feared Blair despised him? Was he that much of a coward? Jim snorted. Like he even had to ask that question.

How much pain had Blair pushed down and locked away in the vault of his heart? And at what cost?

Jim had a lot of questions, but no real answers. He felt like someone who had survived a massive bomb that had blown up the whole landscape, leaving him wandering around in a daze, trying to make sense of it, to figure out what to do, how to fix the unfixable, too stunned to really make sense of anything.

How the hell could he have thought that forcing Sandburg to climb that cliff would be a good idea? Necessary? It wasn't like they had to scale the heights every day - or even might have to often enough for it to matter. No, the truth was he'd wanted to punish Blair, get even for those damned tests. Wanted to punish the guy who'd given up his career, his dreams, to protect him, to ensure his safety and comfort in his world.

Real nice, Ellison. With a friend like you, this guy really doesn't need any enemies.

He'd seen hatred in Blair's eyes just before he started climbing and, again, when he'd pushed so hard to hear the story. Hatred. In the past four years, he'd seen fear, admiration, confusion, hurt, grief, patience, impatience, compassion, sorrow, determination, courage, weariness, enthusiasm, affection, pain, and so very much more in those expressive eyes and on that unshuttered face. But he'd never seen hate, not until today. Why hadn't that stopped him? Why hadn't he realized they were on perilous ground and called off the whole damned thing? Or at least asked why? Because, in his arrogance, he'd had a plan and he was determined to see it through? Because he'd been so certain that Sandburg would be glad when it was over, relieved by his achievement? Would even thank him?

Thank him. Yeah, right.

Had he pushed Sandburg too far this time? Pushed him over the edge so that there could be no going back to what they'd had? So far that Blair ... Blair wouldn't ever forgive this? The only hope he had that the kid was even still talking to him was that heavy sigh and the weary question, to ask if he was zoning. He'd been so startled after the hours of silence that he hadn't recognized the question as the olive branch it might have been. And, yeah, okay, angry. He was angry that Blair hadn't just damned well told him why he didn't want to make that climb. Angry that Sandburg hadn't ever told him about something so monumentally important. Angry that he hadn't known why Blair was so fearful of heights.

Which just started the whole round of questions over again. Why hadn't he known? After four fucking years, why the hell hadn't he ever asked? What had Blair meant, that this Jesse was maybe the only real friend he'd ever had? What did that say about what Blair thought about their friendship? They were friends, good friends – weren't they?

The fire burned down to glowing red coals and hot white ash. Jim looked toward the tent and knew Blair was finally sleeping. He was tired and tempted, so tempted, to turn in himself, to let sleep put an end to all the damning questions. But ... he couldn't. He didn't really understand why, but he felt as if he had to stand watch over Blair, stand sentinel while his partner slept.

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

Blair woke stiff and sore from the unusual exertion of the climb the afternoon before, and feeling muzzy, as if he'd been at a wild party. Blinking in the sunlight that streamed in the flap of the tent, he rubbed his eyes and scratched his stubbled face as he rolled onto his back – and noticed that Jim's open sleeping bag looked unused. Usually, as soon as he got up, Jim rolled up the bag, unless they were staying at the site for a few days. This looked like he'd not come to the tent at all.

Remembering then all that had happened, all that he'd felt and said, Blair wasn't entirely surprised that Jim was avoiding him. Then he recalled that he'd left Jim by the fire and cursed. God, what if Jim had been sitting out there zoned all night! Hastily, he kicked himself free from the bag and crawled out of the tent.

"Jim?" he called, and then stopped when he saw his partner scrambling eggs over the campfire. Relief flooded him as he straightened.

"Morning, Chief," Jim replied, glancing up at him, looking a bit wary. "You okay?"

Blair wiped a hand over his mouth and shrugged, feeling uncomfortable about his outburst the night before. Much as he preached that men had every right to cry, he tended not to subscribe to the practice personally. "Better," he returned as he approached the fire. "I ... it was a rough day," he said lamely. Looking off toward the cliff, he added, "Hard memories."

Jim poured a mug of coffee and lifted it toward him. "I'm sorry...."

"Oh, hey, man, you didn't know," Blair allowed as he gratefully accepted the mug and blew on the hot elixir before carefully taking a sip. He grimaced at the heat, deciding he needed to give it a minute to cool. Studying his partner, he saw that Jim had the pallor and pinched look around the eyes that said he hadn't slept. "I said some things," he acknowledged, feeling awkward but also feeling that what he'd said, what he'd felt, had been legitimate.

Nodding, Jim returned his attention to dishing up their breakfast. "Some things need to be said," he said, sounding unusually tentative. He offered a plate of eggs, sliced tomatoes and bacon to Blair, and sat back on the old broken trunk of a fallen tree with his own plate. He didn't eat, though, just shoved the food around with his fork. "You ... you want to talk about it?"

"Uh, not really," Blair muttered, surprised to find himself hungry. "This looks great, Jim, thanks. I'm starving."

Jim flashed him a gratified smile and, the tension in his body marginally easing, began to eat.

Blair swallowed his first bite and said, "It was hard to talk about all that and I really don't want to..."

"That's okay. Your friend, Jess? Sounds like he was a very brave man. A good man."

Blair smiled sadly. "Yeah, he was." Spearing another bite, he paused, his appetite waning. "I haven't talked about him in years. And that's just not right. I guess ... I guess I'm glad to have finally honored his sacrifice."

He flicked a look at Jim, who was studying him, concern written on his face. Jim nodded solemnly. His gaze falling away, seeming tentative, even awkward, he said, "Chief, if there're things you need or want to talk about -"

"Yeah, I can see you're real comfortable with that," Blair drawled sarcastically, setting down his plate and taking a gulp of coffee. "Don't worry, man. I don't plan to make a habit of crying on your shoulder."

"I just meant -"

"I know what you meant," Blair again cut him off, so sharply that he surprised himself, and Jim's expression blanked as the walls crashed back down. Taking a breath, realizing that he hadn't slept off all the anger and apparently none of his bitterness, Blair held up a hand for peace. "Sorry, that was, uh, a little harsher than I meant. I'm feeling a bit raw, Jim. Give me some time to get my balance back, okay? I'm not used to spilling my guts all over the ground." Wrinkling his nose with distaste as he glanced over to where he'd been sick, he added with embarrassed chagrin, "Literally or figuratively."

Jim lifted a brow and cocked his head, but only shrugged. "Whatever works," he agreed.

Whatever works, Blair thought irritably as he resumed eating, though he wasn't sure why he was so annoyed when Jim had only, essentially, been agreeing with him. Maybe it was the casual way in which Jim seemed to shrug off everything that had happened the day before, his evident willingness to let it all go?

Neither of them ate much, and after a few minutes of uneasy silence, Jim looked up at the sky and sniffed the air. "Rain's coming. We better pack up and get back to the truck."

Blair cleaned their utensils and packed up the food and cooking supplies, while Jim struck the tent. Drowning the hot coals of their fire with the remains of the coffee, Blair found himself wondering, if Jim had been staring at that fire all night, why hadn't he zoned? Or maybe he had, and come out of it eventually on his own? Frowning, he glanced at Jim, who was securing the sleeping bags to their backpacks. Shrugging, deciding he was done with following up on every little bit of odd sentinel behavior or anomaly, Blair finished his chores. Jim certainly didn't appreciate it, even resented it, and maybe it was just a sign that Jim's control was really great.

In minutes, they had their packs on their backs and were striding down the narrow trail to the parking lot about two miles away. Walking along behind Jim – which seemed to have become his perpetual place in life – still deeply angry about the reason for this little outing, Blair abruptly decided he was done with imposing tests. Jim despised them and it was only his opinion as to whether they were useful or not in keeping Jim's skills honed, but any sentinel who could stare at a fire all night without zoning had to be handling his senses pretty damned well on his own.

Who knew? Maybe he'd discover that he'd been deluding himself about Jim still needing him. Maybe he'd just been hanging in and hanging on in a misguided and unconscious attempt to pay Jesse back. Maybe ... maybe, this time, he should be the one to let go.

The imagery of free-fall that filled his mind was dizzying, disorienting. He stumbled before he was able to shake it off, but he recovered his footing quickly.

Jim looked back over his shoulder. "You okay, Sandburg?"

"Yeah, sure," Blair grunted. Was that what it would be like if he left Jim and set about picking up the pieces of his own life? A feeling that the world had fallen out from under him but only for a while? Only until he'd recovered his balance?

Once more, he found himself studying the tall, muscular man leading the way down the forest trail. Would Jim miss him if he moved on? Would he even notice if he was gone? Snorting softly, Blair figured he knew the answer to that question. Jim would notice, alright. If nothing else, he'd notice that he didn't have to take any more of the despised tests. Beyond that, Blair didn't have a clue. He'd once thought that Jim considered him a friend, a good friend but, after the last several months, he really didn't know how Jim felt about him or what Jim thought about him.

Oh, sure, there was the nice little speech in the hospital after the press conference, but Blair wasn't sure he believed it, or not entirely. He thought Jim said those things about him being a great partner and 'best cop' more out of gratitude and relief, and maybe a need to say something to acknowledge he really appreciated Blair's grand gesture to safeguard his secret. Jim said a lot of things when he was under stress, most of which he regretted when things had cooled down, things like needing a partner he could trust and that it was all over. Blair had learned the hard way to take all such spontaneous utterings with a large box of salt. And, yes, Jim and Simon had offered him the badge and, when he hadn't accepted it, managed to swing the Special Consultant position ... but was that only because he helped Jim with his senses, not because they really wanted him around?

Would he miss Jim? Miss living in that cramped little cubbyhole under the stairs? Not so long ago, Blair knew moving on would have left him feeling bereft. Not so long ago, he'd thought of Jim as the best friend he'd ever had.

Now? Not so much.

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

Jim was trying to convince himself that everything was probably okay between him and Blair. The kid was still talking to him which, last night, he wasn't so sure would be the case. On the other hand, Blair hadn't initiated any conversation and was unnervingly silent now; usually, he kept up a running low-level chatter about whatever he might be thinking. Jim had to admit, he tuned a lot of it out, but the absence of it was disconcerting.

This whole cliff-climbing thing had turned out to be a really bad idea. No doubt, Blair was back there dreaming up all kinds of tests to make him pay for it.

Blair had said he was still 'a little raw', so maybe that was all that was wrong. Maybe he just needed some time to get his good humor and equilibrium back.

Maybe I screwed up big time.

Only real friend.

Did Sandburg really mean that? Didn't Blair see him as a real friend? What did being a 'real friend' mean to him? They lived together, worked together, went to games and the odd movie together; if they weren't friends, then what were they?

I didn't have to prove anything to him ... he didn't care if I was younger than him.

Jim felt the hard knot of anxiety that had grown the night before tighten in his stomach. How many times had he expected Blair to prove himself? Or, maybe more to the point, when didn't he expect it? How often did he put the man down, discount what he said, criticize or mock the way he looked or acted, in one way or another, in public and in private, because he was so much younger and he wasn't a cop? Add in any observable lack of interest in Blair's personal interests, activities, history, hopes for the future, feelings about all the really bad stuff that had happened in the last year or so...

God, I treat him like the furniture, like a convenience, and way too often like a necessary evil. But he's closer to me than anyone ever has been. He's the best friend I've ever had. I know what having a friend means, but do I know how to be one? Have I ever really been anyone's friend? Jack? I screwed around on him ... and wasn't there when he needed me because of that. And now he's dead. Simon? Yeah, but that's more a congenial boss/employee relationship - but we do go fishing. And I went after him when he and Daryl were lost in Peru. I respect him, even admire him - would he consider me to be his friend, a 'real' friend? I'm pretty sure he would. But I treat him differently than I treat Blair, always have. Why is that? Well, because if I treated him like ... like I treat Blair, he wouldn't stand for it.

Do I take Sandburg for granted?

Jim frowned at his morose thoughts, and his lips tightened into an unhappy line at the unpleasant taste of the truth.

Immediately, Jim denied that to himself, listing all the ways that he'd been good to Blair, like offering him a home - so he'd be available to help with the senses. Like ... like ... but every example he came up with, he could readily, too readily, link to how it made things more convenient for himself or how it was related to protecting Blair, either watching out for him because he didn't dare lose the only person who really understood his senses, or just doing what he'd do for anyone in the same situation. But he cared about Sandburg, he really did - so much that he considered Blair his true family - but when had he ever done anything, said anything, that was grounded simply in that caring, in an interest in Blair for the person he was?

Jim wracked his brain, but he couldn't think of a single time, not one example, other than his desperate - so very desperate - effort to bring Blair back at the fountain. But when Blair had wanted to talk about it, he'd shied away ... why? Because it was too personal? Because it left him feeling too vulnerable? Too out of control? Because he didn't understand it and, though he was profoundly grateful that it had worked, the whole thing had scared the hell out of him?

But, hold on, I told him what a great partner he was, what a great cop ... after he'd crucified himself to protect me; would that rank as 'too little, too late'? And it was all still about what he is to me, anyway, wasn't it? He never wanted to be a cop; he turned down the badge when Simon offered it.

Jim felt cold with trepidation. If he had such a hard time proving to himself what a great friend he was to Blair, then it was no wonder if Blair didn't realize how much Jim valued him as the best friend he'd ever have. After yesterday's fiasco and Blair's meltdown, and Blair's continued distant manner, Jim felt as if he was treading over very thin ice that was cracking in every direction. What if ... what if Blair had had enough of his 'attitude'?

Attitude? Let's not go overboard, here, Ellison. You charge him a fair rent - which makes you a half-decent landlord, but not necessarily a friend. You wouldn't let anyone hurt him - you're a cop; you don't let anyone hurt anybody. You get along pretty good, kidding around, work well together - just like you get along with Joel, and H ... so, like a colleague or acquaintance, sort of. Great. Do you even know when his birthday is?

Not that Sandburg was perfect. He was noisy, almost always talking - with the notable exception of now. He was messy; his room was a disaster-area; but then, there wasn't much space in there and the closet was small. He was always juggling commitments, running late; well, he used to, when he was at Rainier.

He doesn't acknowledge my birthday, either - but he has given me gifts, like the white-noise generator, and the eye-mask, and he cooks up weird concoctions when I'm sick. He gave up everything for me, to protect me ... that kinda trumps any shortcomings, doesn't it, you schmuck? Shit.

Abandoning his attempts to rationalize his behaviors, Jim sighed and shook his head.

Some things are going to have to change, and damned quick.

They reached the truck, and tossed their gear into the back. Blair climbed into the passenger seat without so much as looking at him, let alone speaking. Annoyed by the silent treatment, Jim clenched his jaw and looked to the sky for wisdom or strength, or maybe both. He got in behind the steering wheel and cranked on the engine. Just before he put the truck in gear, he said, "This was a bad idea, and I ... I wish I hadn't brought you out here."

"Yeah," Blair agreed, but he didn't say anything more, and he didn't turn away from the view out the side window. Then, as if coming out of deep water, he shook himself and asked, "You okay to drive? Didn't look like you got much sleep last night."

"I'm good."

Blair grunted something noncommittal and returned his attention to the trees.

As he pulled out of the lot, Jim wondered how long he was going to be in the doghouse. Grimacing, he told himself that Blair would forgive him, especially since he'd had no way of knowing what climbing meant to the man. Of course, Blair would forgive him. He always did.

It hurt worse than dying. Sure a lot worse than giving up my career.

Jim scowled. Three for three. He was responsible for Blair's death at the fountain, and for his sacrifice of his career, and now he was responsible for dragging up the worst time in Blair's life. He was real glad they weren't playing ball, or he'd be out for the inning, and maybe would have lost the whole game.

By the time they got home, Jim decided he was a whole lot more comfortable with a Blair who talked nonstop than one who didn't say a word. Silence continued to reign while they unloaded their gear, stored the camping stuff in the basement, and climbed up to the loft.

"What do you feel like for lunch?" Jim ventured.

"Not hungry," Blair replied over his shoulder on his way to his room, where he closed the door.

Jim opened his mouth to call out ... something, but he didn't know what. So he sighed instead, and went to the fridge to get himself a beer. Moving to stare out at the bay, he wished for the thousandth time that he'd never dreamed up his little revenge for the tests that bugged him so much. Right about now, he'd take just about any test Sandburg wanted to give him, if only the kid would start talking again.

Rubbing the back of his very stiff neck, he muttered, "Damn, this is not the way I pictured this weekend working out."

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

ACT I

The next morning, Blair was up early and making breakfast by the time Jim finished his shower and was dressed. Coming down the steps, he studied his roommate warily, wondering if the storm had blown over.

Blair glanced up as he dished up the eggs. "Morning," he greeted, his tone neutral but he didn't smile, so Jim assumed bad weather was still in the forecast.

"Morning," he returned. "Smells good."

Blair didn't respond, just finished buttering the toast. Two slices went on each plate that he passed over the island to Jim. He turned back to fill two mugs with coffee and carried them to the table.

"You ... okay?" Jim asked, hating the feeling of treading on eggshells in his own home. Blair wasn't the type to throw hissy fits, but the chill in the air was eerily reminiscent of the last days of his marriage.

Blair set the mugs down and took his seat. "I'm ready for work," he replied as he picked up his fork and started to eat.

"That's not what I asked," Jim persevered, figuring if they were going to fight, it was better here than downtown.

Blair's mouth tightened and his usually bright eyes were shadowed and somber when he lifted his gaze to meet Jim's. "You really want to get into this?"

"Chief, I didn't set out to hurt you," Jim complained.

"Didn't you?" Blair challenged. When Jim started to protest, he hurried on, the words tumbling over one another. "I know the whole test thing was to get even, okay? I even set it up so you could work out some of your frustration. I wasn't even nervous about it, because I knew - I knew - you wouldn't deliberately do anything to hurt me. But, God, I was wrong, wasn't I? Jim, tossing me onto a rubber mat a few times under the guise of brushing up my self-defense moves, or taking me out for target practice - that would have been getting even. But ... but you know that I'm honestly afraid of heights. Okay, so that's never stopped me and never would; when I have to deal, I deal. But you planned it out. You deliberately chose a 'test' that you knew damned well would shake me to the core, would terrify me - to get even because you find the tests annoying. I trusted you; I've always trusted you. But if this ... if this is what you really think I deserved for what I've done to try to help you, well ... fuck you, Ellison."

Jim clamped his teeth together and swallowed an angry retort. "You feel better now?"

Blair just looked at him for a long moment, then shook his head. "Honestly? No." And he went back to eating his breakfast.

Jim struggled to find the right words, but could only offer lamely, "It was a mistake - and I did think ... I hoped..."

"Yeah, yeah, you hoped you'd cure me of my neurotic fears," Blair cut in, coldly and his eyes now glittered like blue ice. "Well, you know what? I guess maybe you did. So long as I'm not roped to anyone, it looks like I can climb just fine." Visibly stopping himself, his lips thinned. Then, he flicked his glance down to Jim's plate and with more restraint, sounding tired and sad, he directed, "Eat your breakfast before it gets cold."

Jim felt chilled by the tone and the glare, but ached at the hurt. He wanted to say something more, wanted to protest that damn it, he hadn't plotted and schemed to be deliberately cruel ... he just hadn't thought it through, but he couldn't keep up with the emotional rollercoaster ride. All he wanted to do now was patch things up and move on, but it was clearly not going to be that easy. In the back of his mind, he heard someone call, Three strikes an' yer out! But ... but only for the inning, right? He hadn't really lost the whole game? Not like this. Not after something as stupid and thoughtless as this.

Numb, he gave up trying to find the words to make things better; words never worked anyway. One way or another, he'd find a way to make up for being a fool, and not just over the climb. Nodding to himself, he took hope from the idea that it wasn't too late - Blair was still here, right? Had made breakfast? Said he was ready for work? Jim began to eat and, because Blair had made it, he finished it, even if the food tasted like sawdust in his dry mouth.

They cleaned up the kitchen, and pulled on their jackets in silence. When they were ready to leave, Jim opened the door and unconsciously touched Blair's shoulder, to guide him out ahead, just like he always did. But Blair flinched away and strode briskly into the hall. Jim's arm dropped heavily to his side and he felt a twist of nausea, even as resentment built at Sandburg's pissy attitude. Not that he didn't have reason, but Jim didn't have to like it. In fact, if he liked it, he figured Blair wouldn't be impressed. Taking a breath, swallowing hard, deciding one of them had to at least try not to be angry, he locked up and followed his partner into the stairwell.

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

Jim was startled when Blair greeted everyone with his usual warmth when they walked into Major Crime, but then he reasoned that Blair wasn't mad at them. He could tell the cheerfulness was a veneer, and that it didn't come easy. Part of him had to admire Blair's efforts to keep their argument private, and not make their workplace part of the battle zone. Just as swiftly, he castigated himself for once again underestimating his partner, for expecting childish behavior when Blair had never given him reason to expect such immaturity. The kid had been young when they started working together, bouncing and perpetually effervescent with energy and excitement, but he'd never been mean or vindictive.

He found himself wishing he could slip, chameleon-like, into a similar 'all's-well' demeanor, but he wasn't that versatile, and was conscious of the others giving him odd looks, as if wondering why he was so stiff and remote when everything seemed A-OK with his partner. Resigned, figuring they'd chalk it up to one of his 'moods', Jim hung up his jacket behind his desk and tried not to listen to Sandburg chatting so easily with their colleagues. He went to get a cup of coffee in the breakroom, and brought one back for Blair. The suspicious look he got and the muted thanks bugged him; couldn't a guy do a favor for his friend? Something as simple as bringing him a cup of coffee without it being a big deal? But, as he settled at his desk, he knew it was a break in their pattern. Usually, Sandburg was the one who got both coffees. Well, Jim had decided that things had to change, that he had to be more ... overt about valuing their friendship, so this was just the first, small step in what he hoped was the right direction.

Intent upon taking another positive step, Jim pulled Blair's license up on his computer. Noting the birth date, he was glad he hadn't delayed any longer. Blair's thirtieth birthday was only three weeks away. Closing the screen, he sat back and thought about the party he'd like to give his partner, but then frowned when he considered the guest list. So far as he knew, Blair wasn't in contact any longer with anyone at Rainier. Aside from their colleagues here in MCU, most of the rest of the department was still watching him - both of them - because of the media frenzy and Blair's press conference a few months ago. Too little time had passed for everyone to forget it, if they ever would. Jim had overheard comments around the building that indicated that there was some debate about that press conference and the truth; seemed quite a few people had observed Jim doing his thing and come to their own conclusions. So, for the most part, there wasn't the pervasive negativity they'd all feared about bringing Blair on board officially and permanently, more a 'wait and see' attitude, as if the jury was still out. Okay, so, it would be a small party – maybe in a private room in a nice restaurant down by the water. Three weeks wasn't a lot of notice, though, and he'd have to hustle to reserve a place.

Simon came in then on a waft of cigar smoke, his commanding presence filling the bullpen. He hurled relatively cheerful greetings at his staff as he strode past their desks, but he paused between Jim and Blair's work areas. "So, you two enjoy having a full weekend off, just like normal people?" he asked cheerfully.

"Ah, we did a little camping," Jim supplied.

"Oh, we did more than that," Blair chipped in, and Jim went still. "Jim decided to help me overcome my neurotic fear of heights, so we climbed a pretty fair cliff."

"You're kidding!" Simon exclaimed. "Well, good for you, Sandburg. Not every man has the courage to confront his fears. I'm proud of you," he approved. "And good for you, too, Jim," he added with an equally commending tone. "Takes a good friend to have the patience and initiative to help someone overcome their fears."

"Mmm," Jim murmured with a noncommittal shrug, uncomfortable with the praise especially given the outcome. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Blair giving him a thoughtful look and he sounded subdued as he replied, "Thanks, Captain."

"Well, I guess I'd better see what cases have landed on my desk since yesterday," Simon said with an assessing glance at each of them, as if he had picked up on the tension between them. But with only a quirk of his brow, he moved on toward his office.

"He's in a good mood today," Blair observed, sotto voce.

"Simon's right," Jim replied, taking the neutral comment as the most likely olive branch he was likely to get. "It took a lot of courage for you to do what you did on Saturday." When Blair gave him a skeptical look, he went on, "I mean it. Okay, so you were angry. You had reason to be. But climbing that cliff couldn't have been easy and you handled it like a pro. And ... well, I know it was even harder for you to tell me why, but you did. And I appreciate that."

Blair sat back in his chair and studied him, his expression giving nothing away. But, finally, his gaze dropped and he gave a slight nod before returning his attention to the suspect statement report he was finishing.

Hoping he'd mended some of his fences, Jim blew a long, silent breath before he pulled a file from his inbox and began to review the summary of crime statistics for the past month, the first of a stack of mundane ‘routine info' files that were circulated to each officer on a regular basis, and that had accumulated on his desk over the weekend. He scanned the files quickly before initialing them, and then rose to pass the bundle to Blair, who usually found them more fascinating than he did.

"Thanks," Blair murmured absently, his attention on the report. Looking up, he said, "I'm just finishing this off, for what it's worth."

"Sanders' statement, you mean? Yeah, I'm pretty sure he was lying. He's probably only the hired help, but he knows something about the weapons and explosives that were stolen from the Armory last week. When you're finished, I want to check out his alibi. And I want to give his truck a thorough check."

Pressing a few keys, Blair said as he stood, "Soon as this prints, I'm ready."

Vastly encouraged by the return to routine communication, Jim put on his jacket and retrieved Blair's, holding it until his partner had slipped the hardcopy into the case file they were building. Without a word or any eye contact, Blair slid his arms into the sleeves, gulped another hit of caffeine, and gestured for him to lead the way out of the office.

Or not.

Pressing his tongue into his cheek to calm himself and to hold back a sarcastic comment to mask his uncertainty, Jim rolled his eyes as he turned away, and told himself it was going to be a long day. Long ago, long before he'd become a cop, he'd learned how to be patient; it had been a survival skill in his covert-ops days. He'd allowed the skill to get rusty but he could still draw upon it when necessary.

Right now, nothing was as necessary as giving Blair the time he needed to calm down. Jim knew he'd made this mess with his thoughtless actions and his partner needed his support now, his understanding – maybe more than Blair had ever needed it before. He'd be damned if he'd let the kid down this time.

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

Initiative and patience, Blair thought with a soundless snort as he replayed Simon's comments on their drive across town. Still, his elbow propped on the window ledge and rubbing his lips with a finger, he wondered if he'd over-reacted; make that: was still over-reacting. Cutting a sideways glance at his partner, he had to admit that Jim was on his best behavior, and really did seem to feel bad about it all. Was he making too much of it? Or ... was it just the last straw? Did his reaction signal that he'd maybe been squirreling away his emotions about all the things that had happened, that had gone wrong, that had hurt like hell in the past several months, until he just couldn't pretend he was happy with Jim anymore?

Restless, he shifted in his seat. Being off-balance, especially with Jim, was uncomfortable and he had to admit that his half-formed ideas that it might be time to move on had created an ache inside. He felt sad and – whether it made sense intellectually or not – like a traitor. So, what now? Did he let it go and try to forget it, or did he do something about it?

Biting his lip, he decided he had to take it a step at a time. The first thing, the most necessary thing, was to determine whether or not Jim could manage on his own; if not, then everything else was moot. No way would he abandon Jim if he wasn't ready to go it alone with his senses. Knowing the man like he did, Blair was pretty sure Jim would never ask anyone else for help, and probably wouldn't admit to anyone else if he was having problems. Well ... maybe Simon. But he didn't want to bring Simon into this until he had a better idea himself of how he felt and what he was going to do.

So that meant he had to get past his still simmering anger and the hurt that fueled it. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly, and tried to let the anger go with it. He concentrated on relaxing his tense muscles, and rolled his shoulders. Better, a bit better. Not all the way but ... better.

Oh, forget it; he was still so mad he could spit.

Grimacing, he wondered if his anger was like the genie trapped in the lamp. Once it got out, there was no putting it back in again. Okay, fine, go with the program. See how Jim did without being constantly grounded and reminded of how to apply his senses in different ways; find out whether he needed the routine testing or not to keep his skills sharp. And maybe try to release some of this anger by recording in his journal everything that made him so damned furious, because all this emotion wasn't just about the past weekend; it was about being repeatedly told he couldn't be trusted, about having died, about a whole lot of stuff they'd never dealt with.

Maybe he should start checking the paper for apartments for rent. Whether or not he kept working with Jim, the time might well have come to get a place of his own. Maybe just having a little space would help, make him feel less like a hanger-on – and maybe Jim wouldn't take him so much for granted, would see him more like a colleague, like the others in Major Crime, if they weren't always tripping over one another. Now that he was earning a regular, and pretty decent, paycheck, he didn't have to continue imposing himself on Jim.

In the meantime, it wouldn't actually kill him to be civil to the man. Jim really did seem to feel bad. Besides, it would be just plain stupid to aggravate matters between them until he'd determined whether or not he was going to have to keep partnering with Jim, maybe for a very long time.

Maybe for the rest of his life.

Unconsciously rubbing his stomach, Blair couldn't decide if it was the idea of never being able to leave that was making him feel more than slightly queasy – or the idea that he might have no more reasons to stay. Anger washed away on a wave of sorrow for all that he felt was gone, all that was lost between them. But then, casting a sideways glance at Jim, he wondered if most of what he'd believed all these years had been illusion or self-delusion.

Had Jim ever seen him as a friend, or as simply a convenience? Or, worse, a necessary evil, someone to put up with until Jim was able to control his senses? Frowning, Blair recalled the put-downs, the jibes, the irritation and anger, Jim's attempt to escape for a while up at Clayton Falls, and his propensity for more than a year now to work more and more on his own, even going undercover twice with the explicit intention of doing so alone. Even before then, Jim hadn't encouraged him to get to know Steven, and had never introduced him to his father. Jim was always so quick to play the trust card, but had Jim ever really trusted him as a man and not just the guru who understood his senses? Sure, Jim and Simon had offered him a badge, and had arranged the current consultancy, but was that out of friendship or a quid pro quo kind of thing, where they thought they owed him something? If so, and Jim didn't really want him around and didn't even much like him, then ... then staying would be a recipe for resentment and disaster.

Discouraged, nearly overwhelmed by his depressing musings, Blair chewed his lower lip and told himself again that, first and foremost, he needed to determine if Jim really did need him or not. Only once he had that answer could he decide what he'd do next. In the meantime, they had work to do and his personal feelings had no place on the job so he had to set them aside. Huffing with mirthless laughter, he recalled Jim telling him he had to learn how to do that, years ago, when they were just getting started. Well, maybe it was finally time to park his emotions at the door.

Focusing on the passing street instead of staring blindly at nothing, he registered where they were. "So, we're going to check out the truck in the impound lot first, then confirm his alibi?"

"That's the plan," Jim agreed.

Jim sounded so tired that Blair cast a sideways glance at his partner, and noted the lines of strain around Jim's mouth and eyes. Frowning, he almost reached out, almost asked if Jim was okay, but he bit back on the reflexive impulse. Swallowing the words, the concern, he reminded himself that he needed to know if Jim could manage without him.

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

Jim felt off-balance, as if all of his senses were just slightly out of alignment; a kind of twitchy, low-level irritation that was not quite distracting but impossible to completely ignore. He figured it was a combination of being over-tired and of trying to contain himself, like carrying a huge and heavy pitcher that was over-full but spilling even a drop would be a catastrophe. He didn't need a lot of insight to figure out why; the one person for whom he'd never troubled to be anything but what he was, was still distinctly pissed at him, and he was at a loss as to how to make things any better. If he didn't feel like such an ass, so completely responsible for the rift between them, he would have growled his annoyance at the silent treatment long before now. But he was responsible and Blair had a right to his anger, so he figured he'd just keep quiet – a fairly easy thing for him to do – and ride out the storm. Blair was constitutionally incapable of being silent for prolonged periods and when he was ready, he'd talk and, yeah, maybe they'd fight, but at least they'd clear the air between them. Until then, Jim was determined to do his best not to annoy his partner any further.

He turned into the entrance of the impound lot and, after checking in with the officer on the gate, cruised along the first row until he spotted the white panel truck in the back. The vehicle was the size of a large U-haul, self-drive truck, and looked about fifteen years old. Totally nondescript, there were no markings on it, no identifying logos, just grimy streaks of dust smeared by years of rain and a substantial amount of rust. One of the wounded security guys from the Armory had spotted the license number and survived to report most of it. A partial plate wasn't conclusive, but the tag number of this truck was the only potential match that was a vehicle that also matched the physical description of the truck used in the heist – circumstantial, sure, but compelling. Now they needed to find evidence that would tie the truck conclusively to the robbery.

Jim pulled up behind the vehicle and, when he got out, he fished the keys that Forensics had returned to him out of his pocket. After unlocking the back panel, he tossed the keys to Blair who, instead of staying with him to walk him through the sensory scan of the container area, walked along the driver's side to open up the front.

Jim frowned but, drawing plastic gloves out of another pocket and pulling them on, he decided he was more than able to do a simple scan without Blair's specialized assistance. Climbing up inside, he was aware of the sounds of Blair riffling some pages – maybe the logbook – and the scratch of Blair's pen in his own notebook. Inside, he paused a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light, and to open up his vision and his sense of smell. Inhaling deeply, and grimacing at the still heavy residual scent of gun oil and plastique, he carefully, slowly and painstakingly, scanned the walls and the floor. Shifting to one side, allowing more light to penetrate the murkiness, his gaze zeroed in on fragments of splintered wood on the filthy floor. Moving forward and dropping to one knee, he studied the minute pieces and then gathered them into an evidence bag.

"Find something?" Blair asked from behind him.

"Yeah, bits of the crates, I think, that maybe chipped off when they were banged together," he muttered. "Looks like there's some black paint on them – should match the black stenciling used by the military."

"Anything else?"

Shifting to change the effect of the light spilling in from the back, Jim quartered the floor with his sight, and spotted several longish, black hairs that definitely didn't belong to their suspect. He carefully gathered them and put them in another evidence bag. "Could be our bad guys; could be anyone who's ever been in this truck – but the military don't sport long hair," he murmured to Blair, who didn't respond.

Standing and returning to the opening to jump back down to the pavement, he added, "I can smell the guns and explosives. They were in here, alright."

Blair nodded, then gestured toward the cab. "There's a thirty-eight mile discrepancy between the odometer and the logbook that's not accounted for in the record. I think that'd be about the distance from his last job to the Armory to the warehouse district down by the docks, then back to where he regularly parked the truck, but it doesn't help us narrow down where in the district he left the stuff."

Jim walked to the cab and looked inside. Once again, inhaling deeply, he isolated his and Blair's scents, to disregard them, and tried to filter his way through the lingering miasma of stale cigarette smoke, butts, and ashes, a too-sweet cologne overlaying thickly pungent sweat and ... yeah, there it was, another cologne, more subtle, different from those he normally scented, so maybe not a North American brand. "There were two people in here recently. I can smell Sanders' after-shave and someone else's. Smells like ... a tropical rainforest, musky." He grimaced when he picked up another, more familiar, scent. "And there was coke in here, too; quite a bit of it."

"Maybe the payoff? Sanders' bank record didn't show any unusually large deposits last week or this weekend."

"Could be," Jim agreed.

"So, we've got the truck, but two people in the cab could mean he wasn't driving it," Blair mused, retaining the logbook to take back to the office. "We've got to break his alibi. Still, for the truck to end up back in its usual place, Sanders had to be in on it."

"Uh huh," Jim grunted as he locked up the vehicle and led the way back to his truck. On the way out of the lot, he dropped off the keys with the security guard in the little hut by the front gate, but Blair retained the logbook as evidence. Then he drove to the sports bar near the Armory, where Sanders claimed he had been until it closed at 2 AM the previous Thursday, the night the robbery had gone down. Stealing a look at Blair as he headed across town, Jim was pleased that his partner didn't seem quite so obviously angry, and was relieved that Blair was evidently determined to do his job. But Sandburg was still pretty much ignoring him and sure didn't have anything to say that wasn't case related.

Mickey's Bar and Eatery was open when they arrived and, though it was only mid-morning, there were a smattering of dedicated drinkers slumped at round tables and staring at a soccer game on the massive screen at one end of the large open space. The bartender was square-faced, short, stocky and swarthy, with thick black hair and impressive blue tattooing on one of his burly arms. He also sported similar tattoos on one cheek, with dots around his mouth and one eye. Jim thought it looked like it would have been painful. He pulled out his badge and introduced himself and Blair, and got the barkeep's name.

"We're looking for information about one of your customers," he said, and showed the bartender a photo of their suspect. The man continued to polish a glass as he gazed at it impassively and shrugged. Shaking his head, he said with a British-sounding accent, "Don't recognize the bloke, but that doesn't mean he wasn't here. The place is a madhouse later in the day and through the evening."

Jim gave a shallow nod and looked around. "Were you working last Thursday night? Anyone else here who was working then?"

"Yeah, I was here," the man answered. Raising his voice, he called to one of the waitresses, a fresh-faced, attractive ash-blond who was garbed in the requisite short skirt and skimpy halter top, "Hey, Suzie. Come over here a minute."

While Jim showed her the photo and asked his question, he was aware of Blair chatting up the bartender behind him. "Hey, man, those are impressive tattoos! You from the North or South Island?"

"North, near Raratonga – you know the place?" the bartender replied, sounding considerably more animated.

"Oh, yeah, worked on a dig out there a few years back, near Taupo," Blair bubbled on. "Bet you enjoyed seeing the All Blacks in the big game on Thursday night. Wish I could've seen it. Man, I really love seeing 'em do the Haka!" he said with a laugh.

"You know the Haka, bro?" the bartender asked, sounding amazed.

The waitress, Suzie Penopscot, didn't recognize their suspect either. Jim was just turning back to gather up his partner and move on when he saw that Blair and the bartender had both bent their knees and were regarding each other with gruesome grimaces of bared teeth, lolling tongues and wide, staring eyes. Before he could say anything, they both began a fiercely loud, grunting war chant as they slapped their chests and bodies, and held out their arms, hands trembling in an odd way, before going back to the slapping and jabbing motions, as if thrusting spears at one another. Everyone in the bar turned to boggle at the distinctly unusual display. Jim couldn't keep his mouth from twitching as he struggled to swallow laughter.

When they finished with a bombastic, blasting, "HUH!", stuck out their tongues and stood with their imaginary spears pointed at one another, there was total silence but for the drone of the game on the massive screen. Blair and the bartender broke out laughing and reached arms across the bar for a complicated handshake.

"Good on ya!" the barkeep approved with a wide grin.

"Oh, hey, thanks. Man, you must be proud of them, getting into the World finals this year," Blair burbled. "Must've been a great game Thursday night between them and Argentina."

"I hear it was," the bartender agreed, sounding mournful. He jutted his jaw at the screen. "Rotten luck, the old widescreen gave up the ghost just before the game started; only got that monster in first thing Saturday morning. Wasn't a happy crowd here, either Thursday or Friday night."

"Ah, geez, really?" Blair commiserated, shaking his head. "Well, at least they won, huh? So there'll be another chance to see them when they play South Africa later this week." Turning to the screen with abject admiration he crooned, "Won't miss any plays on that baby." Then, as if he'd just remembered why they were there, he caught Jim's eye. "Oh, sorry, man, got a bit carried away. Guess you're ready to go, huh?"

"Yeah, Chief, I think we're done here," Jim agreed and didn't try to hide his smile of appreciation. As they stepped out onto the sidewalk, he praised, "Good work, Sandburg."

Blair quirked a brow and dipped his head. "Sure blew away his alibi of sitting in there, watching the whole match Thursday night."

"Sure did," Jim agreed as he got into the truck, while Blair walked around the hood. Once Blair was inside, he cranked on the engine and said, "Let's go pay our number one suspect a visit. Call in to have a patrol car meet us there, to take him downtown for formal charges."

Blair radioed in with the request and the address, then sat back to once again stare out of the side window. Tired of the silence, Jim ventured, "It was the tattoos, right?"

"Yeah," Blair affirmed. "Traditional Maori warrior tattooing," he explained, though more by rote than with any of his old animation, and Jim was struck by how much he missed the enthusiasm, the energy and wonder that used to characterize his partner. "The blue color and the face markings are distinctive and unique. The Haka is their war chant, grimacing to frighten enemies and baring the teeth, as well as sticking out the tongue, to remind the opponents that the Maori eat those they defeat."

Jim wrinkled his nose and curled his lip at that.

"Oh, not anymore," Blair went on. "But they used to; all the Polynesian indigenous peoples were cannibalistic – on Fiji, cannibalism was still being practiced as late as World War I. According to their traditions and beliefs, eating their enemies increased their strength and knowledge."

When Blair stopped talking, Jim prompted, "You said you were on a dig?"

"Yeah, long time ago. A major village that was destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption more than a hundred years ago." Blair didn't say anything more for a while, and then added wistfully, "Beautiful country, New Zealand. Really gorgeous. Nice people, too."

"Any Maori maidens still looming large in your memories?" Jim coaxed, teasing gently, hoping to keep him talking.

Blair just snorted. But a tiny smile played around his mouth as he resumed his mute staring at the street, and Jim counted it as a minor step in the right direction.

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

Their suspect lived on an older street of rundown family homes and boarding houses ... not as depressing as the inner-city, but not a whole lot better. "His wife left him, taking their three kids, about a year ago, when she'd had enough of his drinking and his fists," Blair murmured, almost to himself, but he wasn't sure if Jim had read the report submitted by the original patrol officers who'd picked Sanders up for questioning the week before. Jim nodded, his expression grim, as he led the way up the broken cement walk to the front door. Lifting his hand to knock, he sniffed and stiffened, one hand rising to hold Blair back behind him, the other reaching for his weapon. He tilted his head, and Blair knew he was listening to see if anyone was inside, but he wasn't sure what Jim had smelled that had alerted him to potential danger.

"What is it?" he asked, unable to contain his curiosity and figuring he should be prepared for whatever was waiting for them inside.

"Blood. Death."

Blair grimaced, and cast a quick look around the area, but didn't see anything out of the ordinary. A woman was sweeping her walk down the block. Kids were playing in an ancient treehouse across the street.

Holstering his weapon, Jim drew out a handkerchief to wrap around the doorknob before he tried it. "Nobody inside. Nobody alive anyway," he muttered over his shoulder. The door creaked open and he shouldered his way inside, moving slowly, everything about him screaming that he was in high alert mode. From somewhere in the back of the house, Blair could hear what sounded like a television game show blaring in an otherwise eerie and heavy silence.

Blair followed him cautiously, watching where he stepped so as not to walk over any obvious evidence, like bloody tracks on the worn and faded linoleum floor, not that there were any. He didn't need sentinel senses to smell the pervasive, sickening-sweet stench of a decomposing body. Gritting his teeth and swallowing hard to keep from gagging, lifting one hand to defensively cover his mouth and nose, he hoped the murder scene wouldn't be too gruesome.

He followed Jim down the hall, past the kitchen with its sink and counters overflowing with dirty dishes, empty beer bottles, and pots, and tabletop crowded with pizza boxes and other fast food containers. Not much of a housekeeper, he thought. Once he was in the living room, Jim studied the corpse. Blair edged in to look around him and winced at the sight of Sanders looking like a doll that had lost all its stuffing. His balding head was canted back against the cracked leather of the recliner, and there was a bullet hole, black and buzzing with flies, in the middle of his forehead. His eyes were wide and staring, his expression locked into shocked horror, and a dark trickle of long-dry blood had dribbled down his face, between the awful eyes and along one side of his nose onto the gray, stubbled cheek. A spilled bottle of beer lay on its side next to the chair. Another bottle, still full, sat on the dusty coffee table, on top of scattered newspapers.

"Oh, man," Blair muttered. God, he hated the indignity of death, the cruelty and ugliness of it. But, determined to act like the paid professional he now was, he asked, "When do you think...?"

"Been a while; maybe Saturday, even late Friday," Jim replied, his tone tight. His gaze was already searching the room, the dingy brown carpet, the other dreary furniture.

"No forced entry," Blair mused, also looking around. "Watching TV; like whoever it was wasn't anyone who worried him much."

Jim nodded in agreement. Blair pressed his lips together, to keep from coaching Jim through the filtering of all the disgusting odors in the room, and stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jeans to stop himself from reaching out to place a grounding touch on Jim's back. "You picking up anything?" he asked.

Jim glanced briefly at him, a look of something like confusion or uncertainty in his eyes, before he again turned his attention back to the room and took a careful sniff. The muscles along Jim's jaw flexed, and he grimaced at the unpleasant task but, finally, he nodded. "The same rainforest musky cologne."

Someone rapped on the open front door and called, "Police. Anyone here?"

Blair stepped back into the hall and told him, "Ellison and Sandburg. We've got a DB."

The uniformed cop nodded and moved back out of sight, no doubt heading to his cruiser to call in the medical examiner and the crime scene technicians, and to begin roping off the property.

"Anything else here?" Blair asked. "Aside from that extra and looks like untouched beer bottle?"

Jim moved across the room, taking a position near the coffee table, not quite in the line of fire. His gaze raked the table and the floor around it, and then, drawing an evidence bag from his pocket, he bent to place it over something on the floor, to scoop it up. Standing, he sealed the bag and then held it up for Blair to see. "Longish black hair like the ones in the truck – not the victim's."

Jim stood a moment longer, studying the victim, his gaze narrowed and his expression puzzled as well as mildly repulsed.

"What?" Blair asked.

"I don't know," Jim muttered. "Something ... his waste smells ... off. Like maybe he was sick?" Shifting again, he pointed at a substantial pile of used tissues, some of them brown with splotches of dried blood, on the side table next to the chair. "Must've been a hell of a cold."

Blair frowned, and then shook his head. "He didn't seem sick when we questioned him Friday morning."

"No, I know," Jim agreed. Then he shrugged. "Probably not important," he mumbled as he led the way out of the room and back to the street.

Given the guy's obvious lack of interest in keeping his place clean and tidy, Blair thought those disgusting tissues could have been there for months, and he said so when they stopped outside to take deep breaths to clear the stench of the house from their lungs.

"No, I don't think so," Jim replied, sounding off-hand. "No heavy layer of dust on them." He looked back at the house. There was something about the place that seemed to be giving him an uneasy feeling, but he shrugged again and turned to look up and down the street. "Wonder if anyone saw or heard anything?"

"You want to try the neighbor on that side and I'll ask over here?" Blair asked. "And then we can try the houses on the other side?"

With a tight nod, Jim moved off and Blair crossed the mangy lawn to the next house, which looked somewhat better maintained, as were most of the other places, now that he took a closer look around. He knocked on the door and waited, then knocked again. "Police!" he called out, as he reached for his wallet and his consultant ID.

After a moment, the door was opened by a tiny elderly woman who peered up at him nervously. He held up his ID as he introduced himself. "Sorry, to bother you," he went on, "but there's been a crime next door. We're not exactly sure, yet, when it happened. Did you hear anything unusual over the weekend, or see anyone going in or out of the house?"

"Eh?" she replied, putting a hand behind her ear. "Speak up, sonny!" she urged.

Amending his inquiry as it was pretty clear she wouldn't have heard anything, Blair loudly asked again if she'd seen anyone going in or out of the house next door.

Thin, wrinkled lips pursed and her wizened face scrunched up in concentration as she thought hard, but then she shook her head and shrugged. "My memory's not what it used to be," she told him, looking apologetic. "But I don't recall too many folks visitin' over there, not since Jo took the kids an' lit out."

"Okay, that's fine," Blair consoled her. Handing her a card, he added, "If anything does occur to you, please give me a call at that number."

Fumbling for the glasses hanging around her neck, she peered at the card and nodded uncertainly.

With a sigh, Blair apologized for bothering her, and returned to the sidewalk to join Jim who was waiting for him with a quizzical look of reluctant amusement. "I think the whole neighborhood heard you, Sandburg," he observed dryly.

Blair gave him a wry smile and shrugged. "You?"

"Heard nothing, saw nothing," Jim replied, the trace of humor gone.

They looked across the street, and Blair heard kids playing in the treehouse. Children weren't the DA's preferred witnesses, but they often noticed everything around them. Gesturing, he asked, "What do you think?"

"Worth a try," Jim agreed, once again taking the lead as they crossed over.

A rickety ladder of slatted, ancient wood leaned against the mottled trunk of the acacia up to the entrance of the weathered box-like wooden structure perched between two of the lower boughs of the tree; neither the ladder nor the treehouse would pass any kind of safety code inspection. Jim looked askance at the ladder, clearly wondering if it would hold his weight, and glanced hopefully at Blair. But Blair shook his head and held up his hands, palms out, to signal he wasn't interested in testing his own weight – or luck – with the broken-down ladder.

"You're better with little kids," Jim cajoled.

"I've done enough climbing recently to last me for a while," he snapped back, but when Jim jerked as if he'd been slapped, Blair regretted his caustic tone and harsh reminder of their weekend's 'adventure'. It wasn't like the treehouse was all that high; couldn't be more than ten feet or so off the ground.

Jim's expression flattened and, without a word, he strode to the ladder and tested it with a shake. Evidently deciding it was stable enough, he rested his weight on the first rung, and then began to climb. Just before his head would clear the entry, he called gently, "Hey, up there. I'm Detective Ellison from the Cascade Police Department."

"Oh, yeah?" a high-pitched voice challenged. "Says you. 'Sides, we don't allow no strangers up here. Go 'way."

"I just want to talk to you," Jim replied, sounding calm and encouraging as he went up another rung. He fished his badge out of his pocket and held it up as he lifted his head to peer into the little shack.

Blair could hear the scrabble of small feet on the floorboards and the hissing of excited voices, but couldn't make out their words. In the next second, Jim yelled, a guttural exclamation of shock and pain. Abruptly swinging his body away from the entry, one hand gripping the ladder, his badge plummeted as his other hand frantically scraped at his eyes. For a second, he teetered, then a foot slipped off a crooked rung and he lost his precarious balance, falling heavily to the ground.

"Jim!" Blair cried out as he rushed to his partner's side, dropping to his knees beside him. "What...?"

"Don't know," Jim grated through clenched teeth, his tightly closed eyes streaming tears that his fingers were desperately wiping away. "Smelled like insect repellent. Burns like hell."

"Don't rub them," Blair ordered, pulling Jim's hands away from his face. Looking up at the treehouse and the little, dirt-smudged faces glaring down at them, he yelled, "You just assaulted a police officer, you idiots! If you've got some water up there, toss it down, NOW!"

One of the faces disappeared, and then a water bottle sailed down toward him. Catching it out of the air, he swiftly removed the still-sealed cap. "Jim, hold on, I'm going to rinse your eyes. Might sting a little." Carefully, using his thumb to force open one eyelid at a time, he splashed water over both severely reddened eyes. Jim lay rigidly still, his hands fisted, as Blair gently tilted his head first one way and then the other so the liquid would wash down the sides of his face. "Easy," he murmured.

"What's going on out here?" a woman's voice called, and he heard a screendoor open and slam shut.

With a quick glance over his shoulder at the frowsy young matron dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, he hastily explained, "We're from Cascade PD. Detective Ellison wanted to ask the kids up there some questions, and they squirted something toxic into his eyes." Looking back down at Jim, he finished pouring the water and asked, "Is that helping?"

"Still burns like a bitch," Jim rasped. He tried to open his eyes, but hissed and tightly closed them again.

"I need more water, and a clean cloth to wrap around his eyes," he told the woman in urgent command. She nodded and dashed back into the house. Looking up at the treehouse, he yelled, "You kids better get your asses down here right now. I want answers and no smart-mouth crap – or I'll have the cop across the street toss you in the patrol car and take you all to jail. You hear me? And bring me whatever it was you squirted into his eyes! Now!"

"Chief," Jim cautioned.

"I know," he murmured, angry and very worried about Jim's eyes. "But they don't know I'm not serious. And they deserve to be scared shitless for what they just did."

The three young boys, somewhere between four and six years old, climbed down and stood nervously by the tree, looking like they'd like to make a run for it. "Whatcha wanna know?" one tow-headed tyke asked.

"That house over there," Blair said, with an impatient gesture across the street. "You see anyone unusual going in or out, anyone who looked dangerous, or did you hear anything?"

"When?" another boy, this one with shaggy brown hair, asked.

"Sometime this past weekend."

The woman came back out of the house with two more bottles of water and a clean dishtowel. Blair took the water and resumed irrigating Jim's eyes. "Well?" he urged with a sharp glance at the boys.

"Yeah," the last one said softly, sounding chastened as he peered up through the honey-brown curls that tumbled over his eyes. "Saturday, just after we got back from the store an' before we had lunch. A guy with long black hair and a mustache, an' dressed all in black. When he come out again, he was shoving somethin' in his pocket. Ain't never seen him aroun' before."

"Why?" the blond boy demanded, still trying to sound tough. "Somethin' happen to mean ole Sanders?"

"Was the guy white, black? Old, young, what?" Blair asked as he emptied the second bottle into Jim's eyes, and opened the third.

"Old," the brunette kid said. "Not too old. Like you. Not like 'tective Ellis-uh."

"Ellison," Blair supplied, his lips twisting at being called 'old'.

"An' he was white ... sorta looked like Zorro," the curly-haired boy added.

"Zorro? You mean Mexican or Spanish?" Blair clarified as he finished off the third bottle and tossed it on the ground before reaching for the dish towel, which he folded lengthwise a few times and then gently wrapped it around Jim's head, covering his eyes.

"Yeah."

"You see what he was driving, or if there was anyone with him?"

"Real cool wheels," Curly said with evident approval. "Red Mustang convertible; looked brand new. An' there was another guy driving it. Dude had a scar on his cheek, an' his black hair was in a ponytail."

The blond boy piped up, "The license number was LSS zero zero five. I ‘member ‘cause it was like my initials an' age."

"Just rest for a second," he said softly to Jim, then quickly drew his notebook out of his jacket pocket to scribble the information. Looking up at the woman he asked, "What's your name? And did you see this guy or hear anything on Saturday morning?"

"MaryLou Swartz," she replied, "and no, I didn't hear or see anything."

Turning to the kids, he asked, "What're your names?"

Curly piped up, "Teddy Swartz." "Mike Chalmers," said the brunette. "Les Swartz," admitted the blond.

"Okay, good," he said as he scribbled the names. "We might be back to see you again. Now, what did you spray him with?"

One of the boys sheepishly held out a small, plastic spray bottle of insect repellent, and the woman offered tentatively, "The boys didn't mean no harm. We've always told them to be careful and not talk to strangers."

Barely acknowledging her with a nod, Blair took it and stuffed it, his booklet and pen back into his pocket, and turned back to Jim. "You hurt anywhere else? Anything sprained or broken?"

"No," Jim rasped with a sharp shake of his head.

Not sure whether to believe him, Blair carefully helped Jim to his feet and looped an arm around his waist to keep him steady. "Let's get you to the hospital," he urged.

"Is he going to be okay?" Mrs. Swartz asked, wringing her hands.

"I hope so," Blair growled over his shoulder, as he slowly began walking Jim back to the truck.

He helped Jim into the passenger seat, and fastened the seatbelt. Jim fished his keys from his pants pocket and held them out to him. "Thanks," Blair murmured, then ran around to the other side. Starting up the engine, he thought, Test be damned, and warned, "Turn down your hearing. I'm going to start the siren."

"You don't need –"

"Yes, Jim, I do," he cut in as he slammed the bubble light on the dash, flipped the switch for the siren and, with a quick check for traffic, peeled away from the curb. Beside him, pale and grimly silent, Jim sat with one hand braced against the dash, the other fisted beside him on the seat. Mouth dry, terrified about the damage that might have been done to Jim's eyes, Blair drove like a bat out of hell to the nearest hospital.

Less than fifteen minutes later, in the darkened treatment room, Blair stood on one side of the examination table, one hand lightly gripping Jim's forearm, the other resting on Jim's shoulder, while the doctor finished irrigating Jim's swollen and badly reddened eyes. Jim still wasn't talking any more than he had to, and his jaw was clenched against the discomfort and, no doubt, the fear of permanent damage. Blair felt sick with anxious worry, awash with emotions that had swept away his anger and left him wondering how it could have ever had blinded him to the fact that he loved this guy more than anything or anyone else on the face of the earth. His gaze darting from Jim's face to the doctor and back again, all he could think about was how much he hoped Jim was okay.

"What do you think?" he asked, low, his voice shaking.

"I think you did a good job of washing away the worst of the chemicals," the doctor murmured back. "But let me just finish this and do a more detailed examination." A moment later, the physician carefully blotted the excess moisture from Jim's face with a square of linen, and then reached for an instrument on the small, metal table beside him. "I'm going to shine a light into your eyes. Look past it, up toward the ceiling, alright?"

"Yeah," Jim husked, and Blair felt him tighten up even more.

Carefully lifting first one swollen eyelid and then the other, the doctor shone a pencil-thin beam at Jim's eyes. Nodding wordlessly to himself, the doctor then helped Jim sit up on the side of the table. "Relax as much as you can," he soothed.

Blair placed a hand on Jim's back, and the doctor moved away to switch on a single light that focused upon an eye examination chart on the wall. Even though the rest of the room remained dim, the brightness cut the darkness and was startling. Blair saw Jim flinch and shift his face away from the light. Letting out a slow breath, Blair told himself that was a good thing; it meant Jim could see.

"Alright, now, I know your eyes are irritated, but I want to know if you can make out any of the letters on this chart," the doctor said. "Take your time. Cover your left eye and tell me what you can see with the right."

Jim took a deep breath, and his voice sounded strained as, squinting, he read the tiny letters on the last line. Switching hands without being directed, he did the same with his left eye. But when he was finished, he kept both eyes closed and shaded them from the light with one hand.

"Good, very good," the doctor said as he flipped off the bright light. "But I can see that you're still very light sensitive, and you might be for at least another day. I'll give you some drops to help alleviate the burning sensation, and ointment to reduce the swelling and stave off infection, and we'll bandage your eyes to allow them to relax. Once the swelling goes down, probably by morning, you should be feeling a great deal better. But you may want to wear eye protection for the next several days."

"Uh, what kind of ointment?" Jim asked. "I've got a lot of allergies. Sandburg, would you...."

"It's just eye drops and polysporin," the doctor said, glancing at Blair.

"That should be okay," Blair replied, but he examined the tubes of eye drops and ointment to be sure what was in them. "And when we get home, I can apply wet teabags to his eyes, to also bring down the swelling."

"Good idea," the doctor affirmed. Talking all the while, explaining what he was doing, he applied the ointment to Jim's eyelids and administered three eye-drops from another tube into each of Jim's eyes. Then, he secured oval gauze patches with a strip of thin linen that he wrapped around Jim's head. He handed the sample tubes of medication to Blair. "Three more drops in each eye at bedtime, and another application of the lotion. If the swelling doesn't go down by morning, or if you experience any blurring or other visual problems tomorrow, I want you to come back and we'll arrange a consult with a specialist. However, I think your friend's fast action in thoroughly irrigating your eyes at the scene ensured you'll have no lasting damage."

"Thanks, Doc," Blair said with heartfelt relief as he moved around the table.

"Yeah, thanks," Jim added with a shaky smile.

"C'mon, man, let's get you home," Blair encouraged as Jim stood and reached out toward him. Blair caught his hand and placed it on his arm, just above his elbow, as he'd done back in those awful days when Jim had been blinded by Golden.

Jim swallowed and nodded, and let Blair lead him out into the hall and then, outside, back to the truck. "We need to go downtown," Jim said after he'd climbed in on his own and belted himself in.

Closing the door, Blair rolled his eyes at Jim's determined independence, but didn't respond until he settled behind the wheel. "We can call in the APB, and get a sketch artist to meet with the kids," he said, deliberately using a calm and reasonable tone.

Jim patted his pocket. "I've got the evidence I found in the truck and the house. We need to get that to Forensics."

"After I take you home, I can –"

"Chief, you heard the doctor, I'm fine. I can go back to work."

Shaking his head, Blair muttered, "I don't know why I even try."

A smile quirking in the corner of his mouth, Jim reached across to pat his arm consolingly. "Just be glad I'm not arm-wrestling you for the keys," he teased.

Despite himself, remembering Simon griping about Jim wrecking his sedan, Blair snickered. "You just don't want to crack up your own wheels," he retorted as he backed out of the slot and headed for the street. "Okay, we give ‘em what we've got, line up the artist, and then I'm taking you home."

"So, we got a major arms theft, drugs, the only link we had murdered, and the kids say the killer looked like Zorro," Jim mused. "South American connection? Drugs for guns?"

Man, he just never quits. Blair shook his head but replied, "Yeah, could be."

They rode in silence for a few minutes and then Jim said, low and quiet, "Thanks, Chief. Could'a been a lot worse."

"Yeah, could'a been me," Blair joked, smiling when Jim chuckled.

But though his anger had dissolved, Blair couldn't as easily let go of the concerns that had arisen over the disastrous weekend. Sure, he loved Jim and might be the best friend Jim had ever had – but did Jim feel the same way about him? The questions still remained. Did Jim need him or could he manage his senses on his own now? Did Jim really respect and trust him? Could he trust Jim after Jim had maliciously used his fear of heights to get even with him for the sensory tests? That had been well beyond acceptable bounds. Jim had crossed the line from fun into deliberate hurt, and he didn't deserve that, not after everything they'd been through. And now, without the anger as a shield, the hurt was even more wrenching.

If Jim could manage on his own, regardless of how he felt about Jim, maybe it really was time for him to move on. Unfortunately, he didn't have a clue as to what he might move on to. The saddest part was, he really liked being partnered with Jim; liked the work, liked making a real difference for real people in an immediate and concrete way. Despite the assertion he'd made to Jim when they'd first teamed up, detective work was very different from the world he'd been in for half his life. In police work, there was an immediacy and relevance to real people and real danger, and they made a real difference for the good, whereas the academic work had been more about hoping some students might really 'get it', and that his theoretical papers and articles might further the often abstract quest for knowledge and understanding. And Blair knew he was good at the detective work, dammit, good at stringing clues together, piecing random bits of information into a coherent whole. In that sense, his observational, analytical, and synthesis skills had been very transferable, creating a bridge between his old world and the one he lived in now, the one he'd come to love.

With a heavy sigh, he told himself not to get ahead of things. It was too soon to know if Jim could function on his own, though he'd been doing well that morning, real well. But that was all pretty easy stuff ... he had to give it time, let it play out, and see where the chips fell.

But even if it turned out that Jim did still need his support, they were going to have to have new ground rules. Blair couldn't spend the rest of his life feeling as if ... as if he and his work were only accepted in sufferance because Jim didn't have any choice. Nor could he keep worrying about whether or not Jim trusted him – all he could do was his best and if that wasn't good enough, well, fine. He couldn't bear to contemplate years of knowing that Jim more or less resented the need to have him around so, as a minimum, he really did need to find his own place.

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

"What the hell happened to you?" Simon exclaimed when Blair led Jim into the bullpen.

"Well, you see, Jim tried to storm this fortress, and the defenders fought back with all the chemical warfare resources they had at hand," Blair replied with a wide grin.

"Sandburg," Jim growled.

"Hey, the Captain asked, man, and I'm just giving him the report – why? You want to tell him how three tykes in a dilapidated treehouse fended you off with a can of, well, bug spray?" he riposted, glad it was so easy to laugh about it now that they knew Jim would be fine.

"Treehouse?" Simon echoed, gaping at them as if they'd both taken leave of their senses.

"We broke Sanders' alibi, but when we got to his home, we found his long-dead body," Jim cut in, in his most professional tone. "Kids were playing across the street, and I just wanted to ask them if they'd seen anything."

"Turns out, they had," Blair cut in. "They saw Zorro come out of the house on Saturday."

"Zorro," Simon repeated in a heavy tone that suggested he was fast losing patience.

"Yeah, they saw two Latinos," Jim cut in. "I think we're looking at a drugs-for-services swap, maybe a South American connection. The kids gave us a good description of the car and the license tag."

"You okay?" Simon asked with a frown of concern.

"Yeah, I'll be fine," Jim told him, gesturing toward his eyes. "The patches can come off tomorrow. Sandburg irrigated my eyes at the scene; the doctor said that saved me from having any serious injury."

"And you're here now because ..." Simon probed.

"I picked up some new evidence both from the truck that transported the weapons and at the murder scene that we just dropped off in Forensics," Jim explained.

"And we might send a sketch artist over to work with the kids – though we'd probably only get a good likeness to Antonio Banderas from them," Blair continued. "They gave us enough info to feed into the database to see if we get any hits. One of the guys they saw had a scar on his left cheek."

"Uh huh," Simon grunted. "Desk work only until those patches come off."

Jim lifted his hands in mock surrender.

Meeting Blair's gaze, Simon rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I'm holding you responsible for ensuring he doesn't get out of line."

"Yes, sir," they replied in unison and, snorting with helpless amusement, Blair playfully elbowed his laughing partner. I'd miss this, he thought sorrowfully, though, when Jim reached out to grab him, to ruffle his hair. I'd miss this a lot if....

Short minutes later, he dialed the number for the local federal drug enforcement office. Handing the phone to Jim to see if the physical description of the two men would get them a lead on who the killer and his accomplice might be, he put out an APB on the vehicle and got busy on the computer.

The Mustang turned out to be a rental, the names and address given bogus, but within half an hour, they had names and photos of two possible suspects: Tomas and Pedro Chavez, last seen in Colombia and known to be building a new cabal to rival the ruling drug lords. They'd need weapons to go to war, though, and it made sense that they might try to obtain them outside their own country, without their rivals' knowledge. Also made sense to attack the established leadership locally, to take over distribution and gain a foothold for their own product. Blair arranged for photos to be shared with Patrol, with emphasis to keep a lookout for them and the car in the warehouse district down by the docks. He also printed copies to show the kids, to see if they could get a positive ID. Maybe they'd gotten lucky and there'd be no need to make the youngsters sit down with an artist.

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

As they made their way home after getting a positive ID from their 'witnesses', Jim reflected that he wasn't thrilled about having been taken down by three little kids. If he was ‘normal' and didn't have such touchy senses, the damned spray probably wouldn't have done more than irritate his eyes. But, God, it had burned like fire and he'd been very afraid he'd been blinded. Thank God Blair had acted so swiftly to wash the crap out of his eyes. But, despite the ribbing he knew he'd get from Brown and company, he couldn't help but be grateful that the incident had sure thawed out the deep freeze he'd been getting from Sandburg, and seemed to have gotten them back on track.

On the other hand, though he didn't seem to be angry anymore, Sandburg was still far too quiet for comfort, and that was worrisome. A truce might have been called, but that didn't mean the fight was necessarily over. By the time Blair parked outside the loft and gently led him inside, Jim had decided that he'd better mend his bridges while his partner was still sympathetic about his injuries.

Biding his time while Blair made a pot of tea, with the primary purpose of providing him with teabags to soak his eyes, and their very late lunch – or early dinner – wanting to get things straight in his head, Jim sipped on a beer and thought about why Blair had been so angry with him. Not just angry, but remote, standing back the way he had, not helping with the sensory searches. What had that been about? Had he just been too mad to do his usual thing, or was there more to it? Finally, deciding he was incapable of reading his partner's mind and, drawn by the mouth-watering lure of simmering tomato soup that he could drink from a mug and the rich scent of grilling ham and cheese sandwiches, Jim made his way to the table. Trust Sandburg to come up with a meal he could eat with his eyes closed – or bandaged – as the case might be.

Jim could hear and smell Blair carrying the food to the table, and setting the plate and mug in front of him along with the softer sound of a napkin being laid beside the plate. "Thanks," he murmured.

"No problem," Blair replied as he swung away to bring his own meal before settling in his usual place at the table.

"You okay?" Jim asked as he blew over the soup to cool the heat of it.

"Me? I'm not the one who got poison sprayed into my eyes," Blair returned.

"No, but you ... you were still pretty angry and now you have to take care of me," Jim offered, wishing he could see Blair's face. "Can't be easy."

He heard a deep sigh and Blair shifting in his chair as if he was uncomfortable or unsure how to answer. "Jim, I'm your friend," he finally replied, slowly, his tone off, flat. "Being angry with you doesn't mean I don't care about you."

Jim nodded and took a bite of the sandwich. Once he'd swallowed, he said, "You didn't do your usual thing this morning. Didn't ground me when I was searching the truck and the scene for clues. Was that because you were angry?"

Again, there was a long pause before Blair replied, "Yes, but not entirely. I ... I think we need to see how much you can do on your own, without any help. You did fine this morning; you didn't need me to ground you. You haven't needed my help to examine a crime scene for quite a while now."

Jim thought about that while he sipped some of the rich, creamy soup, glad of the warmth of it to counter the sudden chill he felt. "You hoping to ditch me, Chief?" he asked, proud that his voice remained level and calm despite the dread he felt well up inside.

He heard Blair shove his plate away. "I think we do a lot of things out of habit as opposed to being certain about what kind of help, if any and when, you really need now. Jim, I've always known you've despised the tests, and this weekend I found out how much you really hate them. I mean, you keep saying that you only thought climbing that cliff would help, that it was a legitimate test, right? Well, then, that means that you must think what I put you through is as ... as hard as you knew that would be for me. And, man, if that's the case, then, then ... well, I guess I just need to know if they're really necessary and do any real good, or not. So I've decided that I'm not going to give you any more tests, to see if it makes any difference or not in your abilities. And I'm not going to help you with your senses at work unless or until it's obvious that you need support."

"And if we find out I can manage just fine, what then?" Jim asked, knowing his tone was tight, defensive, but unable to help himself.

"I don't know, Jim," Blair murmured. "Let's just see how it goes, alright?" Before Jim could reply, he heard the scrape of Blair's chair as he stood away from the table. "How're your eyes?" Blair asked, and Jim knew the change of subject was deliberate, that Blair didn't want to talk about the future. "Any pain or discomfort?"

Jim shook his head. "Just a little tenderness," he replied. "Nothing to worry about." Should he push it? Hell, yes! "You're still angry with me, aren't you?" he challenged. "That's why you're suddenly so interested in figuring out how much I can do on my own."

Blair moved into the kitchen. There was a clatter of crockery in the sink, the sound of water gushing out of the tap. Finally, sounding tired, Blair replied, "Regardless of what I feel or don't feel, we need to know the extent to which you can manage your senses without help. This is important, Jim." His steps came closer. "Let's soak your eyes for a few minutes, okay? I know this will help ease the irritation."

Jim bit off his usual protest about Blair and his home remedies and simply nodded. Blair had him to go the sofa to lie down, and cautioned him to keep his eyes closed while the gauze pads were removed. A moment later, he felt the cool, damp bags being delicately placed upon his eyes. "Just rest while I clean up the kitchen, and then I'll rebandage your eyes."

"Sure," he replied, his thoughts preoccupied with what his partner had just told him. So Sandburg wanted to know if he still needed help with his senses. What could he say to that? For years, ever since they'd come back on-line, he'd wanted nothing so much as to be able to manage them on his own, to not have to fear them, fear they'd let him down or overwhelm him at the worst possible time, to not have to be dependent upon anyone else. But ... but he was worried about why Blair wanted to do this now, what it meant or might mean. If Blair decided he was no longer needed, did that mean he'd up and leave?

He hadn't noticed the passage of time or Blair's approach, and jumped a little to feel the bags being removed. "Sorry, man," Blair murmured as he patted Jim's eyelids dry with a feather-light touch. And then fresh gauze pads were secured into place. "You okay?"

"Fine," was all he could manage to say as he pushed himself upright and to his feet. God, he wished he could turn back time and erase the past weekend, but he couldn't. Making his way to the stairs, he muttered, "I'm going to take a nap."

Behind him, he heard Blair continue to putter around the kitchen, soft, muted sounds, normal sounds, comfortable domestic sounds that he'd gotten so used to over the years. Lying down, Jim felt ... anxious, he supposed; worried that things were changing when he'd only just begun to feel as if things had settled down and were going to be okay. Whatever he'd been doing, Blair was soon finished; there was a brief pause of no movement, no sound, and then Blair called softly, "You still awake?"

"Yeah."

"Will you be okay if I go back downtown for a while? See if I can dig up some leads on our suspects?"

"You want me to come with you?" Jim asked, hating the feeling of being useless, of being left behind.

"Nah, I'm just going to make some calls, do some computer searches. You know, the usual. So you're fine if I go?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine."

Curled on his side, Jim listened to the swish of cloth and leather as Blair put on his coat, the soft clink of keys, the door opening and closing and the sound of retreating footsteps, and he wondered what was really going on under those wild curls. Was Blair still angry and just doing a good job of hiding it? Or ... did he hope they'd find that Jim no longer needed his help? Did he want to quit, move on? Jim had thought that working together was what Blair had wanted, too. Was he wrong about that? Was Blair only hanging around because he thought he was needed, because he thought he didn't have a choice? Did he think that was the only reason Simon had offered him a job? Didn't he know that it wasn't all, or only, about the senses?

Too many questions that needed answers. Though Jim bitterly regretted his ill-conceived notion that tackling that cliff would be a good idea, he was beginning to think that maybe ... maybe it had only revealed problems that were already there, just under the surface. He was deeply disturbed by how much he didn't know about what Blair wanted, just as he didn't know much about Blair's past. It was clear that he and Blair needed to talk about ... well, about a lot of things; about anything and everything that Blair needed to hear from him and about his own hope that Blair wouldn't leave, would stay.

Jim sighed at the prospect, the necessity of that conversation; heart-to-heart chats always left him feeling awkward and vulnerable, so he preferred to avoid them whenever possible. But this was too important. If Blair had some misguided notions about his role in their partnership, or about their friendship, if he somehow thought he was dispensable, that had to be addressed. If, God help him, Blair really did want to go, wanted to start fresh somewhere else, Jim knew that would cut deep, all the way to the bone. But after all that had happened, everything they'd been through, Blair deserved whatever support and help Jim could give him. No matter what happened, he had to know they could at least remain friends. Surely, surely, he hadn't screwed up so badly that Blair wanted nothing more to do with him.

Inhaling deeply, Jim told himself they'd have that talk just as soon as Blair got home. In the meantime, he'd just have to hope that it wasn't too late to shore up their bridges and restore the trust between them. It couldn't be too late, right? Sandburg ... Sandburg couldn't really want to call it quits.

Anxious, his chest heavy with uncertainty, Jim listened to the silence of the loft and thought about how empty it would be, how hollow and devoid of life, if Blair left. And he thought about how lonely his life would be without the friendship Blair had so freely given him. Remembering Blair at the bar that morning – chanting and pounding his chest – a sad smile ghosted over his lips. God, he'd miss that vibrancy, the spontaneity, and all the ways Blair brightened his world, made his life and work easier ... and fun. His throat thickened, but he sternly told himself it wasn't too late. He'd fix things between them. Whatever it took, he'd make things right.

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

ACT II

"Hairboy! Hey, glad you're back!" Brown exclaimed just as Blair was getting off the elevator. Brown grabbed his arm and turned him around, walking him back inside the box, Rafe behind them.

"Why? What's going on?" he asked, looking from one to the other.

"The Mustang's been spotted down off Hastings, in an alley between two warehouses," Rafe told him with a grin. "A patrol car is keeping an eye on it, and we're just on our way. Too bad Jim's hurt. This should be his collar but you can come along and make it official for you guys."

"Uh, I don't have the authority to arrest anyone," Blair reminded them, and he thought, Jim'll kill me for going out on the bust of a murderer without him. If he had still been an unpaid observer, he would have taken a pass. But this was his job now, to help apprehend criminals, and this was their case, his and Jim's. He'd been the one to break the alibi that led to the discovery of the murder, and the one to get the leads, the descriptions of the car and the suspects from the kids. For the first time, he was being acknowledged in his own right, not just as Jim's hanger-on. He couldn't help giving both Brown and Rafe a smile of appreciation for being included, and for their recognition that – cop or not – he was official now, Jim's official partner.

He was surprised how much that meant to him, their approbation, their inclusion, the way they took it for granted that he'd come along.

And it hit him then that Jim still treated him like he'd always done, like an observer, and so did Simon, for that matter. Was that one of the reasons he felt he didn't really have a place here, a real role, unless it was to help Jim with his senses?

The elevator opened to the parking garage, and they loped across the pavement to Brown's sedan; Blair hustled into the back seat, while Rafe rode shotgun. In seconds, they were peeling out of the lot and up onto the street. Rafe switched on the siren and planted the revolving light on the dash before turning around to say with a wicked grin, "You know, Jim's going to kill us for taking you along, right?"

Blair rolled his eyes, but bit back what was on the tip of his tongue, that it wasn't up to Jim to tell him how to do his job. Because, well, it probably was up to Jim, as the senior partner, as the 'real' detective.

"Jimbo probably wouldn't be so protective if you'd take the training the Captain offered," H drawled as he steered expertly through the downtown traffic heading toward the docks. "An' if you had a badge, babe, you could make this arrest yourself."

"Is it just about carrying a weapon?" Rafe asked, appearing to be honestly curious. "Because we've both heard stories about how Jim has given you his weapon before."

"Right," Henri jumped in, as he turned onto Hastings and nodded to Rafe, who cut the siren. "An' I heard you were shooting at Kincaid's bunch when they took him and his nutcases down on that sub. So, what's the deal, Hairboy? Don't you want to be a cop?"

Blair blinked at the barrage of questions. "I ... I didn't think I'd be accepted as a cop," he stammered, surprised that they couldn't see the problem. "I mean, I lied, committed a fraud, admitted it publicly...."

Brown snorted, and he slowed as they entered the port area, tall, grimy warehouses rising on either side of the street. Catching Blair's gaze in the rearview mirror, he challenged in what sure looked like genuine surprise, "You don't really think anyone actually believed that press conference, do you? C'mon, get real. Rumors have been goin' around for years about Jimbo, the way he acts at crime scenes, finding evidence nobody else could – drives the CS techs and the Forensics experts crazy. He's always smelling stuff, sometimes even tastes stuff," he added with a shudder, "and he hears ‘way better than anyone I've ever met."

"Yeah, and everyone in the department knew he was a renegade who wouldn't partner with anyone," Rafe chimed in, "until you showed up out of the blue. Next thing anyone knew, the two of you were real tight, and you backed him on crime scenes, mumbling stuff to him nobody else could hear, and making wild claims about his special forces training giving him an edge, or that he ate a lot of carrots. It was pretty clear that, somehow, you were helping him. By the time all that stuff about what you wrote came out, it was old news. We just made a big deal of it to pull his chain."

Blair's mouth had gone dry and his eyes widened as he listened with growing horror. He wanted to deny it all but, very evidently, he'd be wasting his breath and insulting them into the bargain. "Why didn't you guys ever say anything?"

Brown laughed. "Yeah, like that would have done any good." Once again catching Blair's gaze, he added, "Even when you wouldn't cover for him anymore, he wouldn't admit he was seeing a ghost. But he was, wasn't he? No other way to explain the way he dug into a murder case that was forty years cold."

"Besides, we figured there must a good reason he – well, both of you – keep it all a secret," Rafe said, all trace of humor now gone. "But everyone except idiots who'll never get beyond Patrol knows you didn't lie about your paper; you were protecting your partner. Even the diehards who'd resented a civilian tagging along for years on a three-month pass were impressed by what you did, how far you went, to cover for him and get the heat off him. And if anyone did have any lingering doubts, the facts that Simon brought you in, and Jim still works with you, pretty much confirm that press conference was a crock."

Henri slowed through a narrow intersection, and pulled in behind the patrol car. Twisting in his seat, he said, "No way to talk about any of this when Jim's around; no telling what he hears. An' I guess, like everyone does, there's a powerful reason for keeping such a tight lid on the real truth. But you need to know, Blair, the only thing most folks wonder about is why you don't go to the Academy and get your shield. If you don't want to handle a weapon, fair enough. But don't worry about not being accepted, babe. You're solid."

Immensely grateful to know that, Blair blew a long breath. "It's not about carrying, though I have to admit I'm nervous about it. It's just that the training would take weeks and I'm not sure, at least not yet, if Jim, uh, well, if I can be gone that long."

The other two men nodded. "Guess we can understand that, even if we don't exactly know what it's all about," Brown replied. He shrugged. "Right now, I guess we should see what's going on here." He popped open his door. Blair, feeling sandbagged, and Rafe followed him out of the sedan and along the sidewalk toward the patrol car. A tall, heavy-set, African-American got out of the car to meet them, while the other officer remained inside, behind the wheel.

"No action around the Mustang in the alley across the street," Patrolman Kinsey reported, discreetly pointing down the street as he spoke as if talking about something else, in case they were being watched. "When we got here, Mac," he went on, with a nod at his partner in the patrol car, "showed the photos around, while I called in to get more info on the addresses and kept an eye on the car. Nobody admitted to recognizing them, and nobody has gone in or out of the warehouses on either side. I called in another unit, to watch the back of those two buildings, in case they try to give us the slip. But maybe they just dumped the Mustang here and are long gone."

"Maybe," Brown agreed as he studied the two warehouses. "What do we know about who owns the buildings and what's stored in 'em?"

The patrol officer flipped through his palm-sized notebook. "One's owned by Maynard Shipping – been in business for over thirty years, no criminal history, nothing suspicious on the record. They transport everything from furniture to farm equipment. The other one," he went on, with a rapid glance toward the windowless building directly across the street, a three-story brick edifice covered with half a century of grime, "was rented three weeks ago on a month to month lease to a company called Los Cabelleros, Inc. It's an unregistered name, and there are no tax records. There's nothing on record about what kind of business it is."

"Fits the Latin American connection," Blair murmured, doing his best to stay focused on the case and not on the mind-bending information he'd just received from Brown and Rafe. "We got enough for a search warrant?"

"It's your case, my man. What do you think?" Brown replied.

Determined to seem calm and in control, but more than a little nervous to be there without Jim, let alone the one deciding, Blair drew his cellphone from his pocket. "I think we've got enough. Give me a minute to talk to the Captain." Moving away, back toward Henri's sedan near the corner, he punched in Simon's number.

He'd just reached Simon when Zorro, in the midst of a coughing fit, and Scarface came around the corner and brushed past him. Astonished, he wheeled around and saw them jerk to a halt at the sight of the patrol car. In a heartbeat, they were reaching for their weapons, as were Brown, Rafe and Officer Kinsey. Heart pounding, not knowing what else to do, Blair shouted, "Cascade Police! You're surrounded. Put your hands behind your heads!"

On the other end of the call, Simon shouted, "Sandburg! What's going on?! You're not armed, dammit!"

By then, the perps were reluctantly raising their hands and linking their fingers behind their necks, and his colleagues had their weapons out. Blair started breathing again and, remembering Simon, said, "Uh, it's okay, they surrendered. I was calling about getting a warrant to search the warehouse at Thirteen Sixty-Six Hastings, allegedly owned by Cabelleros Inc, but they aren't anywhere on record, and the Mustang from the Sanders murder is parked outside. And, um, well, now we have the suspects from the weapons' heist and the murder in custody."

"Sandburg, you're going to give me a heart attack," Simon groused. "I'll arrange the warrant. Brown and Rafe can wait there for it. I want you back here, NOW. To ... to lead the interrogation," he added belatedly, but Blair understood. Simon was shook that he'd just helped take down some major bad guys, and Jim wasn't there to watch out for him. But, hey, he'd never gotten to lead an interrogation before!

"Yes, sir. Thanks, Captain," Blair replied, smiling broadly, feeling pumped by the adrenaline coursing through his body.

Blair rode back downtown with Officer MacReady, the perps in the back, while Kinsey waited with Brown and Rafe for the search warrant. Both Chavez brothers were coughing now, and Blair could wish their hands were cuffed in front, so they could cover their mouths. Grimacing, he glanced at MacReady, who shrugged and looked stoic. "At least they're not puking," the cop muttered.

His brows lifting in wry amusement, Blair drawled, "Uh huh." Planting his elbow to the window ledge he – unobtrusively, he hoped – covered his own mouth and nose. Sure, Mac might think he was a wimp but if he ended up with pneumonia from this little adventure, with his lungs still not one hundred percent, Jim really would kill him.

Back at the station, he left Mac to handle the booking and to bring the perps upstairs to the MCU interrogation room. Fully expecting the crooks to lawyer up immediately, Blair didn't hold out a lot of hope for getting full confessions.

Simon was waiting for him, and summarily ordered him into the office. Closing the door behind him, Blair perched on the end of the conference table.

"I thought you were home, looking after your partner," Simon started. "Not gallivanting all over town chasing bad guys on your own."

"Jim's fine," Blair returned, not giving an inch. "And I wasn't on my own. H and Rafe got word that the Mustang was spotted and I ran into them on their way out. Since it's Jim's case and mine, it made sense for me to go with them."

Jaw clenched, Banks eyed him. "Sandburg, you're still not a –"

"Cop," Blair interjected. "I know. But I'm not just an observer, anymore, either, Simon. I'm a paid consultant, Jim's official partner, and I have full responsibility now, right?"

Simon seemed about to say something, then hesitated. Shaking his head, he rumbled, "I didn't foresee something like this, you going out on a case without Jim, and I should have. We're going to have to think about this, Blair, determine the scope of your duties and role. But I don't think going out to make an arrest without him is on. You're still a civilian and you're not armed."

Angry and not sure why, Blair pressed his lips together to hold back a reflexive retort, and turned his gaze toward the window. He knew he'd been hired for the sole purpose of giving Jim the specialized backup he needed, so he shouldn't be mad at Simon. But if it turned out Jim didn't need his backup, what then? Was he just supposed to go his merry way, or could there be a real job here for him, regardless? Taking a breath, knowing it was too soon to put Simon against the wall, he said as evenly as he could, "I was about to begin the interrogation. Am I allowed to do that on my own, or do you want someone else to do it?" Turning back to Simon, he added, "Nobody else is fully up to speed on the case except Jim. He won't be able to do it until at least tomorrow."

Sighing heavily, Simon nodded. "Okay, you take the lead. I'll observe to ensure the legalities are respected. When you're ready to start, let me know."

"Thanks, Captain," Blair murmured as he stood to leave, genuinely grateful because, somewhat to his own surprise, he really wanted to do the interrogation.

Half an hour later, armed with a box of tissues, Blair went into his first interrogation on his own. He wasn't surprised to find the lawyer had already arrived. For a moment, he simply eyed the brothers, who looked flushed – maybe from fever, or maybe just furious to have been caught – and both were hacking their lungs out. He shoved the kleenex box across the table toward them, then turned on the tape recorder, gave the date and time, and began, "I'm Blair Sandburg, Special Consultant to the Cascade PD. Tomas Chavez, you've been charged with the first degree murder of Sanders, and Pedro Chavaz, you've been charged as accessory to that murder. We have witnesses who saw you leaving Sanders' home on Saturday. A search is currently underway at the warehouse you rented on Hastings, and ballistics is checking your weapons against the bullets fired during the Armory heist and the shooting of two security guards. Forensics is doing a match between evidence recovered from the truck used during the weapons' theft and the DNA swabs taken from you when you were booked. It's only a matter of time before you'll both also be charged with the theft of weapons Thursday night from the U.S. Armory on Shepherd Street; once ballistics is finished with your weapons, you'll also be charged with the murder of one guard and attempted murder of a second guard. We've got you cold. If you cooperate now, admit to your guilt, your cooperation may be taken into consideration during sentencing."

Both perps sniffled and sneered at him silently, and the solicitor spoke up. "My clients had nothing to do with any murder or theft. They were simply walking down the street when they were accosted by the police. There's nothing they can tell you to help with your inquiries. I'll be seeking their release on bail bond immediately."

Having expected as much, Blair just nodded. Looking from one brother to the other, he focused on Pedro. "I'm surprised you've chosen to be represented by the same lawyer as your brother – that might not be in your best interest. You're not the one who has been charged with murder, and you might have been able to make a deal. But, your representation is your decision. Let me know if you want to talk to me on your own." With that, he turned off the tape recorder and stood to leave. "I'll arrange for a doctor to see both of you. Those colds sound nasty. Keep the kleenex."

When he left the room, he told Mac, who was waiting in the hallway, to take them back down to their holding cell. Simon came out of the observation room and joined him for the walk back into the bullpen.

"You think I should have pushed harder?" Blair asked, wondering if he should have been tougher or something. "I thought we should wait until we have the results of the tests and the search, and maybe see them separately next time."

"No, you did fine," Simon told him. "Nice setup for a 'good cop, bad cop' on Pedro when Jim's back tomorrow and we have confirmation that they're more than innocent bystanders." Glancing at his watch, he said, "It's getting late. Their lawyer won't be able to get a bail hearing until tomorrow; given that they're both serious flight risks, I doubt that bail will be granted anyway. They'll both sweat it out tonight, Tomas worrying that Pedro will sell him down the river, and Pedro wondering just how good a deal he might be able to wangle."

When he got back to his desk, Blair arranged for a medical examination of the two prisoners, and then started working on all the reports of the day's activities. An hour later, Brown called with the news that they'd found the stolen weapons and explosives along with a large stash of cocaine, and Blair felt a surge of satisfaction. Henri also informed him that crime scene techs would be taking prints from the cases before they'd be moved for safekeeping, and the Mustang had been towed into Impound, where it would be dusted for prints, to tie the brothers to the car. He was just about to phone Pathology, to see how the autopsy on Sanders was going, when Simon called him into the office.

Smiling, feeling good, he said as he walked in, "Brown reported in a few minutes ago – they've found the weapons and explosives." But Simon was looking at him with an odd expression, and didn't react to the good news. Confused, Blair asked, "What?"

"Sit down, Blair," Simon directed.

Nervous now, Blair complied as he asked, "Have I done something wrong?"

"No," Banks replied. "I just got a call from Dan Wolf." He paused, then continued heavily, "The murder vic ... there's no good way to say this. Sanders was sick, very sick, when he was killed; some kind of plague, highly contagious and potentially very deadly. The good news is that Dan thinks it's only contagious through respiratory transmission – coughing, and the germ, or whatever it is, dies within an hour in the air. The bad news is, the Chavez brothers are probably suffering from it, and now you've been exposed, too, along with the officer who brought them in, as well as H, Rafe and the other officer on the scene – and anyone else they were in contact with. Dan's coordinating with the doctor who was called in to examine them, and they've been put in isolation. Public Health authorities are going to try to get info from them about where they've been and who they've been in contact with. Since the rest of you have between forty-eight hours and ten days before you become actively contagious, you can go home to pack some things to take with you into Cascade General. They'll want to run tests, get you on the appropriate medication and –"

It had taken a moment for the words, and their meaning, to sink in, but then Blair blurted, "Wait! Wait! Are you saying what I think you're saying? That I – we – could die from being in contact with these guys? What ... what about Jim? He was with me when we found the body."

"Easy, just slow down," Simon urged, holding up a hand. "Nobody's saying anyone is going to die. First, we need to find out if any of you have been infected and I'm sure there are treatments. I asked Dan about Jim, and he figures since the man had been dead for some time when you found him, the corpse and the air around him should have been free from contagions for days."

Blair sank back against the chair. Simon hadn't said it, but he knew they were both thinking it – his damaged lungs didn't need this. "Oh, man," he whispered as he stared at his boss, and tried to contain his fear. Swallowing hard, he nodded stiffly. "Okay," he said, a little stronger. "Uh, I just finished my reports and was about to head home. Jim ... Jim'll probably be okay on his own tonight and he can take the patches off in the morning. Once I've made him dinner, I'll report to the hospital. You're sure it's safe for me to be around him?"

"So long as you're not coughing or sneezing, Dan was sure you wouldn't be contagious," Simon reassured him. "Jim can stay at my place tonight."

Blair was having trouble thinking clearly. Plague ... that was the 'black death', wasn't it? Not just bubonic plague. Pneumonic fever – that was plague, too, but ... but that wasn't always fatal, was it? Holding that thought, he slowly got to his feet. "Thanks, Simon. I ... I'll ask him what he wants to do, and give you a call later."

Simon stood to come around the desk and lay a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Blair. But going in to be checked out doesn't mean you've been infected. And ... and I'm sure everything will work out just fine."

Looking up at him, Blair fervently hoped Simon was right. "But how ... I mean, how does something like this start?"

Simon perched on the edge of desk and took off his glasses to rub his eyes. "I'm no expert on this, and I'm sure you'll get more information from the specialists at the hospital. But Dan said that the disease is borne by insects and rodents. The first victim is bitten, maybe by a spider or mite or mosquito, and then it's spread from one person to another, mainly by coughing and inhaling the germ or bacteria or whatever that causes the disease."

Blair thought of the filthy house where they'd found Sanders, the food rotting in containers in the kitchen and living room; he could easily imagine mice or rats infesting the place. Taking a shuddering breath, he nodded with understanding and acceptance. Now he needed information, lots of information, about treatments and prognosis. Before he went home, he needed to do a search on ‘plague' on his computer and see what he could find out. Sure, he knew he'd be briefed by the specialists at the hospital but ... but he needed to do something himself – needed to apply his skills as a researcher because knowledge would prepare him, let him know what he was in for, and help him figure out what questions he needed to be asking.

And he'd get an idea of what his chances were. He needed to know because ... because it would be too late once he was sick to talk to Jim about what to do if ... if he didn't get better.

"Blair? You okay?" Simon asked.

Blinking back to the moment, he nodded. "Yeah, yeah, sure. I, uh, I just need to finish up a few things, print the reports for you, and then I'll go home. Who do I ask for when I get to the hospital? Do I go to Emergency, or what?"

"Go to Admitting. Tell them Doctor Lucas Cameron is waiting for you. Dan says he's the best in the city. I'll be sending H and Rafe and the patrol officers there, as well, this evening."

"Okay. Either Jim or I will call you later if he decides he wants to stay at your place tonight."

It was all Blair could do to walk out of the office and not run flat-out to the nearest computer.

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

Sitting in the living room, blind and with nothing else to occupy his mind, Jim was waiting for Blair to return. But, when he heard the familiar footsteps trudging slowly up the stairs, he frowned, thinking it sounded as if Blair was reluctant to get home. His concern was reinforced when the steps faltered in the hallway. Standing, he cocked his head, to listen more closely, and he easily picked up Blair's fast and shallow respirations, and then the deep, slow inhalation and exhalation that signaled Blair was doing what he could to seem calm. God, were things so bad between them that Blair couldn't even be comfortable in his own home anymore?

When he heard the key in the lock, he moved to stand by the table, closer to the door, but not crowding.

"Hey, man," Blair greeted him as he came in. "How're your eyes?"

"Better," Jim replied, lifting a hand as he went on, "Chief, we need to talk. I want –"

"Yeah, okay," Blair cut in, again sounding breathless. "But first I have to tell you what happened this afternoon." Under the continuing flow of words, Jim heard the rustling sounds of him taking off his jacket and hanging it on the hook. "Jim, you, uh, might want to sit down. You want a beer?"

"Sandburg, what's going on? What's happened?" he demanded, the urgency Blair implied, combined with the avoidance of spitting it out, making him impatient.

He felt as much as heard Blair approach him and lightly take his arm to lead him back into the living room, where Blair gently pushed him down on the sofa. "Just listen, okay? I've got good news and not so good news." Pacing restlessly in front of him, Blair told him, "First the good news. The APB on the Mustang paid off, and it was spotted down in the warehouse district. H, Rafe, a patrol officer, and I apprehended the Chavez brothers, identified the warehouse where they stashed the weapons and explosives, and they're in custody. By the time I left the office, Ballistics had confirmed Tomas Chavez's weapon killed Sanders, and also that it was used in the heist, killing one of the guards and wounding the other. His fingerprints are on the weapon and in the car, and on crates in the warehouse, as are his brother's. We've got similar evidence tying in his brother, Pedro, and we'll have the DNA results on that hair you found in two days. So ... good news, the case is pretty much nailed."

"Good news? That's great news!" Jim enthused with a broad smile. "Your first official case, and you nailed it, Chief, and in record time! Congratulations! But, uh, why do I feel you've skipped over some details?"

"Well, I didn't think you'd be thrilled to know I went off with H and Rafe without you," Blair replied, his voice sounding tight, defensive. "But I'm not an observer, anymore, Jim. This is my job now, too."

"I know that," he said slowly. "I have to admit, I'm not thrilled by the idea that you might have been in a dangerous situation but..."

"Yeah, yeah, I've been thinking about that and, and I was thinking some things may need to change, but that's ... that's..."

Blair's words had started to race, but his voice abruptly trailed off and he took a deep breath, as if steadying himself. Jim stiffened. What was he going to say? That he'd been thinking about the job and had decided he didn't want it after all? "Chief –" he began, anxious to clear the air, to make things right.

But Blair again cut him off. "The bad news is that Sanders was infected with ... with plague when Tomas shot him. And Tomas caught it from him – it's an airborne infection, transmitted by coughing and inhaling the bacteria called Yersinia pestis. People catch it in the first place by being bitten by insects that were infected by biting rodents," he stated in a rush, not stopping to breathe. "And Tomas and Pedro were both coughing when we apprehended them and, and in the patrol car when we drove them downtown, and when I was interrogating them. So, so any of us who were in contact with them might be infected, too. We all have to report to the hospital tonight."

"Plague?" Jim echoed, jolted and trying to make sense of the rushing river of words.

"Yeah, but we don't know for sure what kind yet," Blair babbled on, still pacing. "It's okay, you wouldn't have been infected when we were at the house because Y. pestis dies in an hour when exposed to air, and Sanders had been dead for days. And ... and it's too soon for me to be contagious yet, if I've got it. So you're okay, Jim. You don't have to worry. Simon said that, if you want, you can go stay at his place tonight. I can drop you off there after supper, before I go –"

"Whoa, would you slow down!" Jim exclaimed, jumping to his feet to reach out and grab Blair, to hold him still. "What do you mean you might be infected? And ... and what does that mean? There's a treatment for this stuff now, right? It's not deadly or anything? Right?"

"They use antibiotics, mostly tetracyclines, like streptomycin." Blair's voice sounded strained and that wasn't reassuring.

"And that works, right?" Jim pushed, his grip on Blair's arms tightening.

"It's got a good chance, if they catch the disease early enough, yeah," Blair told him, but Jim could tell from the sound that he'd turned his face away.

"What aren't you telling me?" he demanded, silently cursing his inability to see Blair's face but even if he ripped off the patches, his eyes were still swollen shut.

"There are different kinds of plague," Blair informed him, his voice low and hoarse. "They'll have a better idea once they know exactly what we're dealing with. It's either bubonic or pneumonic plague. If it's pneumonic plague, it attacks the lungs. Without the antibiotics, ninety-five percent of those infected die."

"The lungs ..." Jim repeated, feeling breathless, horrified by the implications. Without thinking, he pulled Blair closer, enveloping him in his arms, holding on tight. He could feel fine tremors rippling through Blair's body; the kid was scared, and with reason. Jim felt his own terror build. "They've caught on to it fast, Chief. You'll get treatment, if you need it, right away. You're going to be fine," he grated fiercely. "You're going to be just fine."

Blair stood stiffly in his embrace, not returning it and, after a moment, he pushed against Jim's chest to break free. Not wanting him to feel caged, Jim let him go, but he felt chilled by the space between them. "Hopefully, yes, I'll be fine ... I might not even be sick," Blair said, his voice low; he was clearly attempting to keep his fear in check. "But we have to discuss what to do if ... well, you ... I know I said that we need to test if you can manage on your own, but we don't know that you can, not for sure. And until we do, you need the right backup. I ... I heard something else today that you might not like, but maybe it's for the best, if ... well, if ..."

"I don't want to hear it, Sandburg," Jim said, fast and hard. God, he was not going to stand there and calmly decide what to do if Blair ... if Blair died. "You're my partner. Nothing's going to happen to you!"

"Jim, please, be reasonable, man," Blair argued. "You have to hear this. God, I don't want to just dump all this on you, but there's no time. I have to go soon. H and Rafe told me today that just about everyone down at the PD knows you're a sentinel."

"What?" Jim rasped, stunned; he was still trying to come to grips with the possibility of Blair being sick and now he was overwhelmed by the unexpected shift in subject. It was all too much to take in, to think about, but Blair was already talking again, and he had to force himself to listen.

"They told me that cops and techs at crime scenes and in Forensics have been speculating for years, man, about how you can find evidence no one else can, see and hear and smell, even taste, stuff better than anyone. They said they don't understand what I do, but that it's clear that we work the mojo together. They said the media reports just confirmed what they'd known for years." Blair's voice caught and was barely above a husky whisper as he said, "I'm sorry, Jim. I had no idea. I ... I didn't confirm anything but they know, man." Blair cleared his throat, still sounding strained but stronger as he went on. "And, and maybe that's good, because it means that you wouldn't be stuck with Megan as a partner because she isn't the only one who ... I mean, I know the two of you are like oil and water. You just don't mix at all well. But you could pick your partner and, and give them my notes."

"Stop it," Jim growled, lifting his hands. "Just stop it."

"But, Jim –"

"NO!" he roared. Panting in the sudden silence, he wrestled for control, and said more softly, "No, Chief. Just no. We're not going to discuss replacing you because you're going to be fine. I won't listen to you saying otherwise. I won't." When Blair didn't say anything, just seemed to be standing perfectly still, Jim was again frustrated nearly beyond bearing to not be able to see him. "Look, yes, I agree, we need to talk about what this means to us, but that can wait until ... until the rest of it is, is settled and you're okay. Right now, what's important is finding out whether you're sick and what they're going to do to help you."

Jim heard the soft rasp of Blair rubbing his palms over his five-o'clock shadow. "Okay, Jim," he conceded, not in agreement so much as sounding too worn out to fight. "Uh, I guess I'd better change the dressings on your eyes and, and make something to eat."

"We can order in. Not that I'm particularly hungry right now."

"Me, either, but, yeah, pizza would be a good idea and you can always eat it later," Blair agreed, moving away. When he heard Blair punching in the phone number, Jim wanted to shout at him, tell him to stop pretending to be so damned calm, that it was okay for him to be scared. But he knew Blair needed to do normal things to remain positive, and to distance the fear and make it manageable.

Once the pizza was ordered, Blair asked, "What about going over to Simon's tonight?"

Jim shook his head. "I'd rather go to the hospital with you."

At first, Blair didn't respond, and Jim didn't know why. Didn't know if he was surprised or resistant, or thinking about it or wishing he could or ... Jim just couldn't tell from the silence, the stillness. When Blair finally spoke, his voice gave nothing away. "I appreciate that but they'll be putting us all into isolation. There's nothing you can do there."

"Then I'll stay here, and I'll go in to check on you tomorrow."

"Jim, I don't want you anywhere near that hospital – I don't want you risking catching this," Blair countered sharply. "The last thing we need is for you to get sick, too."

Jim turned his face away. He wasn't going to argue about it. But if Blair was sick, there was no way on God's green earth that he wasn't going to be there.

Blair went into the bathroom, rummaged in the medicine cabinet, washed his hands, and returned shortly after. "Let's take care of your eyes before the food gets here. I left some damp tea bags from lunch in the fridge, and I want to lay them over your eyes again for about fifteen minutes. They'll really help alleviate the swelling and ease any residual irritation."

Once again, Jim had to bite back his reflexive retort about Sandburg's voodoo – why did he have to mock everything the kid did for him, when he really appreciated the extra efforts Blair went to, to care for him, to help him heal, especially now, when the kid had to be scared stiff? Later, while Blair gently washed his swollen eyes, smoothed on the medicated lotion, and affixed new patches, Jim asked, "What are the symptoms?"

"Sore, stiff muscles, bad headache, high fever which might lead to delirium and coma," Blair murmured, trying to sound detached but not quite making it.

Jim reached up to grip one of his wrists. "You will be okay, Chief. We've ... you've survived worse."

Blair clasped his shoulder briefly, but didn't say anything, just busied himself cleaning up the detritus of the used patches, teabags, and the other paraphernalia of having cared for him. By the time he'd finished, the food had arrived, and Blair then occupied himself with paying for it and setting out plates and napkins. "I'm really not hungry," he said, "but it's all set if you want some. I'm going to go pack my overnight bag."

Jim listened to him hurry to his room, listened to him pack some clothing and then get what he needed from the bathroom. When Blair returned to the living room, he said, "I really have to go. They're expecting me at the hospital. I ... I'll call you when I know something, if I've got access to a phone."

Jim stood and followed him to the door. He wanted to do something, say something, to bring some life, some hope, into the kid's voice. Once Blair had his jacket on, he knew he was running out of time. "Chief, I ... I wish I was going with you. I hate that you're scared and there's nothing I can do," he blurted, lifting his hands, finding Blair's shoulders.

"It's okay," Blair replied, but his assurance sounded hollow. "We just have to take it a step at a time. Maybe ... maybe I didn't get infected."

Jim swallowed to clear his thickening throat and nodded. Carefully, he cupped Blair's cheek. "You will be fine," he said. "I don't want you thinking anything but that."

Blair nodded and touched his arm, and then drew away to pick up his bag. "I'll call you if I can," he said again, and then was gone.

It was only when Jim heard Blair's shoes pounding down the stairs that he realized he hadn't said any of what he'd planned all afternoon to say. "Ah, Chief," he sighed, and rubbed his face with trembling hands. There'd be time for that talk. Lots of time. He had to believe that, just had to believe it, because the alternative didn't bear thinking about.

After a moment, he went to the phone and carefully punched in Simon's number. "Hi, it's Jim," he said into the answering machine. "Just wanted to let you know I'm staying here tonight. I, uh, I expect to be back at work tomorrow. Sandburg's just left for the hospital. Said he'd call, if he can, when he's got more information. I'll stop by the hospital on my way in tomorrow morning."

Jim hung up and, standing with his head bowed, rubbed the back of his neck. Most of what he remembered from everything Blair had said was enough to scare the shit out of him. Plague? God, it conjured worse images and more dread than cancer. But Blair had said they could treat it now with antibiotics, so the odds were good, right?

But Jim also remembered that though Blair didn't have much to say about what the disease meant to him, or how scared he was, Sandburg had sure been intent upon assuring him that he was fine, was definitely not infected, that he could pretty much choose any partner he wanted to work with, and that Blair didn't want him going to the hospital, didn't want him getting sick. What? Did Sandburg think that's all that mattered to him? That his needs were met? Didn't the kid know he'd trade places with him in a heartbeat, to keep him safe?

Biting his lip in frustration, Jim wandered into the living room and turned on the television. He needed something to distract himself, or he'd go crazy with worry and being stuck here in the apartment. The first thing he heard was the Public Health announcement that anyone experiencing the sudden onset of aching muscles, very high fever, raging headache and severe coughing should contact their doctor immediately, and emphatically should not leave their home until they were cleared to do so by their physician.

Shaking his head, Jim could just picture everyone with a cold or flu imagining the worst, but he supposed it was better to be safe than sorry. Who knew how many people might have been infected by the Chavez brothers before they'd been taken into custody?

Jim wished to God that one of those people hadn't turned out to be his partner. He was concerned, too, about Brown and Rafe, as well as the patrol officers Blair had mentioned. Much as he understood the risks of their work, Jim really had never imagined that one of those dangers might include being a victim of the plague.

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

Blair was amazed at how swiftly he was admitted, once the clerk heard his name. She immediately put on a mask, as if he was as contagious as Typhoid Mary, and sped through the process as if the hounds of hell were hot on her trail. The next thing he knew, he was being escorted by an orderly to an elevator, up several floors and then out into an eerily quiet hallway that was lined along one side by a series of glass-walled chambers that each held eight beds. There was only one entry into each chamber, through an antechamber, also glassed, that held supplies, isolation garb, a sink, water cooler, refrigerator, and linens. Gazing at the empty beds as they marched past, Blair grimaced at the lack of privacy. When they reached the nurses' desk, his orderly surrendered him to a middle-aged nurse who verified his name and that he had no allergies before leading him to the closest antechamber entrance.

"You're the first one to arrive, so you can choose which bed you'd prefer in this isolation unit," the nurse advised him. "Please get undressed. Your doctor will be in to see you soon, and a lab technician will take some blood samples."

She was gone before Blair could ask why he needed to go right to bed when he wasn't really sick and sure wasn't tired. Because it's the rules, he thought with a shrug as he passed through sliding double doors into the antechamber and then through another set of sliding doors into the ward. He felt a strong flow of cool air, and realized ventilation was designed so that air would flow in, but not out of the isolation unit when the doors were open. Pretty neat, actually.

Never having been good at following rules just because they existed, he decided he'd get undressed later as he looked at his choice of beds, not that one looked any different from another. They were all narrow and high, with various monitors and what looked like oxygen supply lines and an intercom built into the wall above each of them. Beside each bed was a single narrow table and a single wooden chair; there were no phones by the beds, so he wouldn't be able to call Jim. The light had a peculiar blue tone that reminded him, uncomfortably, of the jungle he'd experienced when he was, well, dead. The only semblance of privacy would be in the last bed in the row, and only then if he faced the far wall and practically pulled the blanket over his head. Still, minimal privacy was better than none, so he ambled past the other beds to claim it. Of course, people strolling past outside would be able to look in at the patients, like gazing at displays in a museum or animals in a zoo.

Studying the wall of glass, instinctively resenting it, Blair felt caged and dehumanized. His gaze drifted to the ceiling, and he spotted the tracks for privacy curtains over each bed ... but there weren't any curtains. Far from reassured by the whole space-age ambiance and the pristine 'never been touched' atmosphere, the place gave him the creeps.

Belatedly, he noticed a door that seemed to meld with the wall on the far side of his bed, close to the glass wall. Investigating, he discovered it led to a couple of shower stalls, as well as twin urinals and toilet cubicles. There was a commode chair in the corner and he supposed the wheeled conveyance with the strategically cut hole in the seat was to ferry patients too weak to walk to the john.

So much for thinking there wouldn't be a lot of interior traffic past his chosen bed.

Sighing, he closed the door on the communal bathroom. Jittery but also bored, needing to distract his mind, he rummaged in his bag to pull out a book to read later and his journal. Toeing off his sneakers, he climbed onto the bed and plumped the pillows behind him; sitting cross-legged, he opened the journal and thought about what he wanted to write.

Blair remembered thinking earlier in the day that he should write about his anger, and all the reasons he'd been so furious with Jim, but that had been before Jim was hurt ... and before he'd discovered he'd been exposed to a really scary disease. Now, that anger seemed exaggerated, overblown, even childish, but the hurt that had engendered it and the uncertainty about what Jim really felt and thought about him still remained. When he'd talked to Jim earlier, he could tell that Jim had been shocked and scared by the news that he might be really sick. Man, that hug had sure been welcome, even if he'd been too shook to return it. So ... so, yeah, Jim obviously cared about him, hopefully for more than the help he gave with the senses.

Maybe it was a classic love/hate dynamic? Jim both loved him for the help he gave and for being there to give it at whatever cost, and hated him, because of the despised tests and the uncertainty the senses created for Jim – would they spike, would he zone and be helpless – and probably also because they never got a break from one another. He was always in Jim's face. That had to get beyond tiresome. Not that Blair minded; he really enjoyed being with Jim, most of the time, anyway, but he doubted Jim felt the same way. For Blair, Jim was family, pure and simple, but Jim already had a family – a brother, a father and a cousin, and he was no longer estranged from them. And maybe Jim felt guilty, too, for what Blair had chosen to give up for him, to protect him. Guilt could morph into resentment real fast.

Frowning, Blair thought about what Brown and Rafe had told him that afternoon, not at all sure whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. In some ways, it would make things a whole lot easier for both of them if the majority of people inside the copshop knew there was something going on with Jim, and that Blair wasn't really a liar and a fraud. Would it make Jim feel like less of freak to realize that people had suspected for a long time but hadn't treated him any differently? But that meant there were a huge number of people who could let something slip to friends or family, and that could put Jim at risk if the wrong people – like the media or the bad guys – found out. But it had been months – heck, years – with no leaks so maybe it would be okay.

Blair scraped his hair back off his forehead and, stretching out his legs, he leaned back against the pillows. When he'd given the press conference, he'd never imagined that he'd end up working there as Jim's official and permanent partner. Simon's offer had left him very nearly speechless. There was no way he could become a cop – even taking a few weeks training at the Academy was out of the question unless he found out that Jim could manage that long without him. Of course, he'd jumped at the chance to keep working with Jim; there was nothing else that he'd ever wanted so much. But he'd feared that he might be a kind of pariah because of the press conference ... because of being a self-avowed liar and fraud. Surprising as it was, it was a huge relief to know that evidently wasn't the case, so life and a career inside the PD would be far easier for him than he'd ever imagined, that was for sure. But, if it turned out that Jim didn't really need his help, would there still be a place for him there? Outside that small, closed community, the world still believed him to be an unethical jerk, so meaningful opportunities elsewhere might be somewhat limited, at least for a while.

Chewing on his lip, he pondered the whole issue of whether Jim needed him or not. Blair was pretty sure Jim could use his senses at will in the performance of his duties, but what about sensory spikes that disabled him, or zoneouts, or when he was injured and couldn't concentrate on managing his senses on his own? Since there were more people now who theoretically knew about his senses, there were more people to help him, but also a great deal more risk that the wrong people would find out and use his senses against him. Any way he looked at it, Blair was pretty sure that Jim would always need him – or someone – who knew all there was to know about his senses, to help him when necessary because, when it was 'necessary', it was usually also potentially deadly. So long as Jim worked the streets, probably for as long as he was a cop, he was going to need the right backup.

Would Jim welcome the chance to work with someone else? Or resist it? Had Jim even thought about the possibility of working with him for the rest of their careers in law enforcement, or was Jim just focusing on immediate needs and issues? What about me? How do I feel about it? Blair asked himself. A lifetime of working with someone who might never trust him, and might always, in some ways, resent him, was a disheartening concept. A lifetime of being tolerated rather than wanted, of always having to prove himself, was an even more discouraging idea. Did he have the strength to live such a life? Did he want to? But ... but he truly loved working with Jim, and he saw the value of police work, felt good about being a part of that, about making a concrete contribution to community wellbeing and safety. Would he stick with it, maybe go to the Academy, if Jim chose to work with someone else?

Staring through the glass wall at the ceiling in the hall outside, Blair felt heavy with discouragement, weighted down by despair, not to mention nearly sick with anxiety. Here he was, distracting himself by worrying about the future to keep from panicking that he might not even have one. But the sorry truth was that everything might end right here in this godawful human-sized fishbowl.

Talk about depressing, he thought bleakly, but gave himself a shake. I'm alive and not yet sick, might not even get sick. And if I do, prognosis is good when treatment is given immediately. I'll be fine. Really. I'm fine.

"Mr. Sandburg?"

Startled out of his thoughts, he turned to a young woman garbed head to toe in green cotton scrubs, gloves and mask, and carrying a plastic tray filled with glass cylinders, most of them filled with other people's blood. Somehow he doubted if he was really infectious that she would have brought everything in with her. "Yeah, I'm Blair Sandburg," he confirmed, but she checked the band on his wrist to make sure he knew who he was.

"I'm here to draw some blood samples," she told him.

"Okay," he agreed, manfully resisting the urge to point out that seemed to be fairly obvious. He swung around to sit on the edge of the bed where he shrugged out of his jacket and rolled up his sleeve. Turning his face away, not interested in watching her jab a needle into him, he stared through the glass wall and only jerked a little at the sharp insertion. "Why are you wearing all that gear? I'm not contagious; at least not yet."

"Isolation protocol," she explained with admirable brevity.

He shook his head but didn't bother challenging the stupidity of blindly following rules that weren't necessary. She didn't make the rules and she no doubt lacked the authority to flout them. But her clothing, the mask and gloves, made him feel untouchable and oddly vulnerable.

Five vials later, she was finished. "Thanks," he said softly, mostly just to be polite, as he unrolled the sleeve and reached for his jacket.

"You're staying, right?" she asked with a frown. "Why are you putting your coat on?"

"It's chilly in here, especially with nothing to do but sit around," he told her.

"I'll tell the nurse to check the thermostat," she replied, lifting her tray and turning to go.

On the way out, she passed a middle-aged man on his way inside. He was tall and square-shouldered, with thick salt and pepper hair and a ruddy, friendly face, and he was carrying a stethoscope. Since he hadn't bothered to don the isolation garb, Blair figured he must be the one person who could flout the rules – the medical specialist in charge. "Doctor Cameron?" he asked when the man got closer.

"Yes, and you're Mr. Sandburg," Cameron replied, holding out a hand to shake Blair's.

"Just 'Blair' is fine. Dan Wolf says good things about you."

The doctor smiled. "Dan and I went to medical school together. I'll be monitoring you for the next few days, and if you are infected, I'll be overseeing your treatment. This evening, I want to go over your medical history and answer any questions that you may have."

"Dan said the murder victim had plague ... but I don't know if he meant bubonic or pneumonic."

"Pneumonic," Cameron advised him. "At the earliest, symptoms may show up in forty-eight hours, but it could be as long as ten days."

"I know some others are also coming in this evening," Blair said. "What if some get sick sooner than others?"

"If anyone is confirmed to have the disease, they'll be moved to another isolation chamber," the doctor said, "to avoid infecting those who aren't yet sick."

Blair nodded. "Any chance of getting some curtains in here? Feels kind of exposed, you know?"

"Sorry," Cameron apologized. "We keep the place Spartan to reduce the chance of infections spreading from one occupant to another."

"Uh, in terms of medical history, I'm pretty healthy but, well, I drowned almost a year ago," Blair admitted then, and watched the doctor closely for any reaction. Concern darkened the man's eyes, and his smile froze for a moment, which didn't make Blair feel any better about how he might fare if he had contracted the disease.

"I see," Cameron murmured. "If you'll take off your jacket, and unbutton your shirt, I'd like to listen to your chest, see how your lungs are doing now."

Blair obliged him, and watched his face while Cameron listened to him take deep breaths and breathe normally. But the physician had his game-face on, and Blair couldn't tell what the man was thinking. Biting his lip, Blair was afraid that meant bad news because if it was good news, the man wouldn't be so guarded.

Cameron straightened and pulled the stethoscope from around his neck. Tapping the instrument in his other hand, he asked, "Do you have allergies to antibiotics? Tetracycline? Penicillin?"

"No," Blair replied. "That's good, right?"

"That's very good," the doctor told him. He rubbed his chin, then said, "I can hear the effects of scarring on your lung tissue, which isn't surprising given your history, but it does compromise your immune system and your ability to resist infection. You are more susceptible to pneumonia, which means that if you are infected, that your lungs may have a hard time fighting off the disease, even in its earliest stages. But odds are good when we catch the disease at the immediate onset of symptoms – even better, when we know there's been exposure and we watch for early signs of infection in the lab, before the more obvious symptoms appear."

Blair swallowed to moisten his dry mouth and throat. "So ... so even if I'm infected, I should be okay?"

Cameron's gaze shifted briefly before again meeting Blair's. "I'm saying you've got a good chance of survival because we can institute treatment immediately if we discover an infection."

A good chance ... but no guarantees, Blair thought, and felt as if the ground was falling away beneath him, leaving him exposed and vulnerable – and utterly helpless to stop the juggernaut of Fate that was bearing down upon him. He'd spent a fair amount of time breathing the same air as the Chavez brothers and having them cough repeatedly in his face. There was no question that he'd been ‘exposed' and Blair knew the odds were that he'd very definitely been infected. Not trusting his voice, pressing his lips together, he nodded stiffly to signal his understanding of the situation and the implications the disease held for him. The doctor gripped his shoulder before stepping away from the bed. "When ... when will we know?" Blair croaked.

"Sometime between now and ten days from now," Cameron replied with steady calm. "Try to be patient, and try not to worry. You're where you need to be."

"Yeah," Blair sighed and wondered if Cameron knew he'd not answered the question Blair had intended. When would he know if he was going to make it – or if he was going to die? Was there some kind of turning point? Some set of symptoms or a stage of the disease where it became irreversible? He was about to clarify what he'd meant when movement out in the hallway caught his attention, and he saw Henri and Rafe being shown to the unit. Behind them, he recognized the lawyer he'd met that afternoon during the interrogation. "More of your patients are arriving," he said, and wished they might have been just a few minutes later. With the moment of privacy gone, he was reluctant to probe for more information. Maybe it was for the best; maybe he didn't need to be thinking about how bad it might get.

When the lawyer walked in and saw him, the man froze in his tracks. "Oh, no," he exclaimed. "I can't stay in here. This isn't appropriate."

Blair just gave him a wry grin as he shrugged and held up his hands. Putting them together in the same ward wasn't his idea of a good time either.

"What's the problem?" Cameron asked.

Stiffening like a bantam rooster, his chin in the air, the lawyer snapped, "That man is a police officer. I'm representing two men he arrested this afternoon. I can't be incarcerated in the same room – it would compromise my role."

Cameron rolled his eyes and looked to Blair. "Well, I'm not a cop," Blair clarified, "but essentially he's right – and the other two who just came in are Detectives Brown and Rafe, who did make the actual arrests earlier today. Uh, he's probably right that this isn't the best arrangement."

Turning back to the lawyer, his tone frosty, the doctor replied, "Well, strictly speaking, you're not incarcerated; you've come of your own free will. But, yes, we could compel you to be here in the interests of public safety. We have one other isolation chamber activated around the corner. Since the patients in it are under police guard, I suspect the men in it are your clients. While you might prefer to be with them, I can't allow you to be placed with patients who are actively infectious."

"I passed a number of empty isolation tanks, er, wards on the way to this one," the lawyer stated. "I insist upon being placed in one of them."

Cameron stiffened, evidently not appreciating being ordered around on his own turf, but he finally nodded. "Fine," he agreed. "If you'll follow me." On his way out, he advised Henri and Brian that he'd be back to examine them a little later.

Henri was hard-pressed to contain his laughter. Once the double doors had slid shut, he guffawed. "Man, did you see his face when he thought he might have to go into the locked ward with his clients? Now that would have been what I call poetic justice."

Blair couldn't help but grin when Rafe also broke out laughing. Well, at least with them here, it won't be dull, he thought, glad to know he wouldn't be alone with nothing but his own thoughts and fears for company. The lawyer had seemed pleased to know a unit was being opened for him alone but, personally, Blair knew he'd hate being isolated in a glass cage, on his own for days on end. He hoped that lawyer liked his own company.

Brown dug into his satchel and pulled out a deck of cards and a plastic bag full of poker chips. Holding them up, a wide grin on his face, he asked with studied innocence, "Anyone interested in trying their luck?"

Blair snorted at that, and then started to snicker. Luck, that's what life seemed to come down to, didn't it? Plain old good or bad luck. Standing and picking up his chair to carry down to the far end where Rafe and Brown had chosen beds, he called, "Sure, deal me in."

They'd just finished moving some furniture and sorting out poker chips when Mac and Kinsey, the uniformed officers they'd met that afternoon, arrived. Mac lifted a brow at the blatant evidence of illegal gambling, but grinned and winked at Kinsey. They both dumped their bags on empty beds and drew their chairs into the growing circle around Brown's repositioned bedside table, more than ready to join the game.

Nobody said anything about why they were all there. Blair wondered if it was some kind of tough guy thing, to pretend there was nothing to worry about. Or whether it was just that these guys had accepted long ago that life was a gamble at the best of times, and they didn't want to jinx their chances or attract bad luck by talking about what might happen.

Simon showed up about an hour later, to see that they were all there and doing fine, at least for the moment. When he saw them playing cards, he shook his head and a small smile ghosted over his lips. The nurse told him he had to put on the isolation garb, but Blair went to the sliding doors to tell him he probably didn't need to, since the specialist hadn't bothered because they weren't contagious yet. The nurse rolled her eyes but didn't argue about it. Simon eyed Sandburg, as if weighing the risks of taking his advice and not putting on the special garb, but then shrugged and strolled inside where he perched on a bed to watch the game.

"Any news?" Brown asked as he dealt another hand.

"Nope," Simon replied. "The Chavez boys aren't admitting to anything."

The cops around the table shook their heads, studied their cards, and anteed up.

"You might be pleased to know, though, that your time here to determine whether you've been infected or not will not be charged to your sick leave credits," Simon told them. "The rationale is that you're not sick now but only here as a public safety measure."

The men cheered that bit of information. Given the hazards of their work and the risks of being injured, none of them had liked having to burn sick days when they weren't actually ill. And there's nothing like the idea of getting extra time off with pay to do virtually nothing but lay around, play cards, and flirt with the nurses to raise the spirits. The mood was definitely jovial as they called for one or more cards and placed their bids.

Cameron returned a few minutes later, and Simon remained while he explained the illness to everyone in terms of what to expect in the way of symptoms if they had caught the disease, and why it was so important that they were there, so that treatment could be started immediately, if they were sick. Shortly after that, the lab tech returned to harvest blood samples from the others. Simon left then, and Cameron reviewed individual medical histories with each of the other men.

Blair had to admire their single-minded determination to behave as if everything was basically normal, with nothing to worry about. When the doctor had briefed them about the disease, the symptoms and treatment, they'd stopped playing to listen attentively, but during – or despite – the taking of blood samples and individual, personal examinations, the game went on.

And despite – or perhaps because of – the cold, space-age, antiseptic environment and the specter of death looming over them all, they played cards, joked and laughed, teased and reminisced until well into the early hours of the morning.

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

Jim spent a restless night, haunted by memories he always tried hard to forget and plagued by nightmares that wrenched him from sleep – crying out and sweating with horror. Over and over, he recalled the terrible vision of shooting a wolf and watching it morph into Blair, and the chilling sight of his partner lying naked and dead in a blue forest.

But worse than that vision were the memories of the reality of Blair floating facedown in the fountain, his skin and lips blue and cold with death against the wet, green grass, and the hollow silence where there should have been a heartbeat. The devastating and merciless memories didn't stop there. A kaleidoscope of images, all of them Blair's face, haunted both his waking mind and his dreams: the confused and uncomprehending expression of betrayal when Blair found Jim kissing Alex on the beach, lusting after her; his drugged vision in the temple pool of Blair's bright eyes and wide smile, alight with life; all the light gone and the face grim and gray with strain, but determined, in front of the cameras, while telling the world he was a fraud and liar, sacrificing himself, killing his career, his reputation, his dreams ... another kind of death.

And though his eyes had been bandaged and he hadn't seen Blair's face when the kid was trembling in his embrace, he had no trouble imagining Blair's expression while he was trying so hard to calmly tell him he'd been exposed to a plague, a plague that might attack lungs that were already scarred by death.

As soon as he detected the faintest lightening through the patches that covered his eyes, Jim savagely ripped them off. Squinting through still puffy lids, he rose and went downstairs to shower the stinking sweat of the sickening memories from his body. But as soon as he flipped on the light in the bathroom, he flinched away from the brightness, and immediately plunged the room back into darkness.

His eyes were far from fully healed, and he knew Blair would tell him to wear the patches for at least another day, but he didn't need the light to wash and shave, and he'd wear sunglasses when he left the loft. It didn't matter if the light still stung or if he should probably wear the patches in deference to his heightened sensitivity. What mattered was getting to the hospital. He had to see Blair and talk to him. Whatever was wrong between them had to be made right. Jim had to know his partner was doing okay, and he had to know what the doctor was going to do to make sure Blair stayed that way.

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

Blair was awakened by another lab technician, who wanted more of his blood. Rubbing his eyes, yawning, wondering what the hell time it was, he held out an arm for her to bind, probe, and prick. Squinting in the dim light shining in from the hallway, wishing he could see a window to the outdoors, he glanced down the row at his colleagues, who were all still blissfully sawing logs. Frowning up at the anonymous technician, deciding he/she/it looked like either a thief with that mask or an alien from a bad dream in the isolation get-up, he complained, "Why me? Why not them?"

"You're just the first," she told him, and winked. "This gives you the chance to grab the shower before they're all awake."

"What time is it?" he asked, lifting his free hand to cover another yawn. Man, he felt like he'd barely gotten to sleep.

"Nearly six-thirty in the morning; your breakfast will arrive by seven," she murmured as she released the rubber band around his arm.

"Great," he muttered. Nothing to do but sleep, and they insisted upon waking them all at dawn. God, he hated hospitals.

When she finished, he rolled off the bed, grabbed clean skivvies from his bag, and headed for the shower. Before he'd finished, someone else claimed the second stall and, from the disgustingly cheerful singing at such a ridiculously early hour, he recognized Henri. By the time he left the bathroom, still toweling his wet hair, Mac and Kinsey were shaving and Rafe was waiting for his turn in the shower.

Blair had just pulled on his jeans and was buttoning his shirt when movement in the hall caught his eye and he looked up to see Jim peering in, even as he was striding toward the entrance to the ward. Blair waved and ambled down past the other beds to meet him, and to tell him he didn't yet have to bother with the isolation garb.

"How're your eyes?" he asked as soon as the doors swished open and, peering up at his partner in the still dim light, trying to see past the sunglasses.

"They're fine," Jim replied, looking around at the row of rumpled beds and the ring of chairs circling a bedside table laden with poker chips and a deck of cards.

"They're swollen, aren't they? Maybe you should still be wearing the patches. Did you put ointment on them this morning?" Blair demanded as he reached up to lift the glasses and grimaced at the red and swollen eyelids and bloodshot eyes.

Jim brushed his hands away and pulled off the glasses. "Yes, mother, I put on the ointment, used the drops, and they're fine. How are you? Have you seen the doctor?"

"Yeah, last evening," Blair replied, waving him to one of the chairs, but Jim ignored them so they continued standing by the doorway. "Doctor Cameron briefed us all on the disease, the symptoms which will appear in the next day to nine days, if they're going to appear at all, and the treatment – antibiotics. Just like I told you last evening. The Chavez brothers and their lawyer are here, too, somewhere – in other isolation units around the corner, I guess."

"Did Cameron tell you what it is?" Jim asked, searching Blair's face and tilting his head a little. Blair knew he was no doubt listening to his breathing and heartbeat, seeking assurance that though he probably looked tired, he was still all right.

"Pneumonic plague," Blair advised him, doing his best to keep his voice level.

Jim seemed to sag. "Ah, geez, Chief. What did he say about your lungs?"

"He said it was a good thing I'm here, where treatment can be started immediately if I get sick," Blair replied, doing his best to sound soothing but too anxious to really carry it off. "He ... he said I've got a fairly good chance of survival."

"Fairly good ..." Jim echoed, sounding stricken and he started lifting his arms, as if to draw Blair closer. But Brown and Kinsey came out of the bathroom just then, Brown shouting a greeting, and Jim's arms fell back to his side. Frowning at them, he asked, "Who all is in here with you?"

"H and Rafe, and the two uniformed cops who helped with the arrest yesterday, Kinsey and MacReady," Blair replied. "Why?"

Shaking his head, jamming his hands into his jacket pockets, Jim looked frustrated. "I wanted to talk to you but ... God, there aren't even any curtains to give a bit of privacy."

Blair chuckled mirthlessly. "Tell me about it."

Just then, the lights brightened sharply, and the clanging of a metal cart in the hall announced the arrival of breakfast. Jim winced and hastily put the glasses back on. A nurse joined the attendant pushing the cart, and they both took time to put on the isolation garb before beginning to transport the trays into the ward.

"You shouldn't be in here," the nurse told Jim, her voice stern. "Especially not without the proper precautions."

"They're not contagious yet," he snapped back.

Blair glanced at him, surprised at how angry Jim sounded, and put a calming hand on his arm without conscious thought.

"I'm tempted to insist you remain in here," she went on as she placed a tray on Rafe's table, and then turned to frown at the clutter on Brown's.

"Fine with me," Jim countered.

"Whoa! Let's all just calm down, okay?" Blair intervened, his grip on Jim's arm tightening. "Doctor Cameron told all of us that the very earliest any of us would be contagious is tomorrow sometime," Blair informed the nurse. "I understand that you have rules, but they're not really necessary today, and I'm sure you know that, too. This is my partner, Detective Ellison. He just came by to see what the doctor said to us last evening."

She nodded and seemed to relax, marginally. Looking from Blair to Jim and back again, she said, "I'm sorry, you're right. But this is a very dangerous, very aggressive disease and we must take all necessary precautions against its spread." She paused to glance at Brown and Mac, to include them, then added with a softer tone, "Tomas Chavez died an hour ago, and his brother may not last much longer."

Blair gaped at her, and was very glad of the supportive arm Jim immediately wrapped around his shoulders. "But ... they were getting the medication, right?"

"Yes, of course, but they were sick for hours before they were brought in for treatment," she replied, moving toward the doorway to get another breakfast tray. "This disease moves very fast. By the time they got here, it was too late to stop it."

"My God," Henri rasped, and wiped a hand over his face. Mac turned his face away and then, straightening his shoulders, he retraced his steps to the bathroom, probably to tell the others.

"You need to get out of here, Jim," Blair murmured hoarsely, only loud enough for Jim to hear. "Even if we're not showing symptoms yet, some of us may have it – and we can't risk ... I don't want you coming back, not inside here, anyway."

"It's safe enough for now," Jim replied, his grip around Blair's shoulders tightening. "You heard her; she agreed that none of you could be contagious yet."

"I know, but I don't want to take any chances," he said, looking up at Jim, mutely pleading with him to not be stubborn, to not take any unnecessary risks.

Something softened in Jim's expression, and he looked away as he swallowed, his jaw muscles clenching. Blair knew his partner was struggling with having to submit to a situation he couldn't control and couldn't fix.

"Then I guess I better make the most of the time we have now, huh?" Jim countered. "Which bed is yours?"

"The one at the far end."

Jim steered him down the ward. "Let's see what kind of breakfast they've given you," he said, nodding to Rafe and the patrol officers as they came out of the bathroom and passed them on the way to their own meals, not that any of them looked hungry.

When they reached Blair's bed, and the tray on his table, Jim lifted the metal lid that covered pathetic-looking eggs and soggy toast. "Wonderful," he grated sardonically, replacing the lid. Removing his glasses and slipping them into his pocket, he turned to face Blair. Lifting his hands to grip both of Blair's shoulders, he leaned in close to say quietly, "I know I screwed up last weekend, and I know I hurt you. I know I've hurt you too many times in the past. You have every right to be pissed off, and every right to be ... be thinking about figuring out whether I still need you or not; whether you could be doing something else."

Blair interjected, "I'm not angry anymore."

"I know; I can tell. But that doesn't excuse what I've put you through," Jim returned. "There's so much I want us to talk about, to clear up but," he glanced down the ward at the other men, "but this isn't the time or place." Returning his intense gaze to Blair, he went on, "I ... I just wanted to say that I hope you know that I want you as my partner, regardless of the senses. And ... and for all the times I've screwed up, I'm –"

"It's okay," Blair cut in, not wanting Jim to say a whole bunch of things now, while he was worried, things he might regret later, when – if – everything was alright. Neither said it, but they were both afraid of what might happen if he got sick, if his lungs didn't respond to the medications. No way did he want to hear a whole lot of stuff that was said in the heat of the moment, driven by guilt or kindness. When Jim looked like he was going to object, he insisted, "Really, it's okay. Not that we don't need to talk. We do. About a lot of things. But you're right. This isn't the time or place."

Jim bit his lip, but nodded, however reluctantly. "Okay," he agreed. "Just so you know, as soon as you're out of here, we're gonna talk." When Blair looked down and away, Jim shook him gently. "You are coming home, Chief. You're going to be fine."

Blair wished he could be so sure, but there was no point in borrowing trouble, so he nodded and lifted his gaze to meet Jim's – and was nearly staggered by the determination he read in those still-reddened blue eyes and the set of Jim's jaw. God, Jim wasn't just trying to be reassuring; he really meant every word. And Blair remembered, then, that this was the man who'd brought him back from the dead.

"Jim," he rasped, quaking to think of Jim forcing his way into the unit, ready to do battle with the Grim Reaper, and laid a palm on his partner's chest. "I do not want you coming in here again, or being anywhere near anyone who is contagious and that includes me, if I get sick."

Instead of arguing with him, Jim just gave him the gentlest, sweetest smile. "I guess I should be heading to the office," he said, as if they were talking about the weather. And then he surprised Blair by leaning forward to lightly kiss his brow. Pulling back, Blair could still read the promise in Jim's eyes and it scared him. Regardless of anything he felt, of his confusion and uncertainty about their partnership, he knew without doubt that he did not want Jim catching this damned bug. No matter what, he wanted Jim alive and healthy.

When Jim started to move past him, Blair caught his arm. "Don't ... don't risk yourself," he pleaded.

Jim's smile only widened as he shifted past, patting Blair's shoulder before stepping out of reach. "You worry too much, Chief," he said, easy and even, but his gaze slid away. "I'll bring some decent food for everyone when I check back later today." Glancing back at Blair, he lifted a hand. "And don't give me a hard time about it. None of you will present any kind of danger at least until tomorrow." Turning away before Blair could argue further, putting the sun glasses back on, he called over his shoulder, his voice raised for them all to hear, "See you later – and don't let H fleece you too bad between now and then."

"Fleece – him?" Henri retorted, laughing. "Man, Hairboy practically cleaned us all out last night."

"You got that right," Rafe grumbled good-naturedly, while Mac and Kinsey grinned and nodded.

Jim laughed as he made his way out of the ward. And he waved cheerfully as he strolled along the hall, past the glass wall.

Blair crossed his arms and shook his head. But he couldn't help the smile that grew at the corners of his mouth. Jim's assurances, both about their partnership and about the future in general, buoyed his spirits. He needed that encouragement to face the next thirty-six hours or so of waiting – hell, maybe days and days of waiting – to see how his luck would hold.

Still, he didn't want Jim taking any chances of getting infected. Scratching his cheek, remembering that the doctor had said anyone who was sick would be moved to another ward, he decided that if he got sick, he'd make it plain that he wasn't to have any visitors – assuming the hospital would even allow anyone in to see him. Jim wouldn't like it; would probably rage about it. But ... it would keep him safe.

He thought briefly about Naomi. Blair wasn't sure where she was, and he decided that was probably for the best. He really didn't want to deal with either her anger or her regret if ... if things didn't go well. And he sure didn't want to hear her crying that she'd always known working with the pigs would wind up getting him killed.

He'd made his choices for reasons that mattered to him, and he wouldn't go back to change them, even if he could.

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

Blair and the others spent the next few hours quietly reading the newspapers the nurse brought in, or books they'd brought with them. Mac and Kinsey fell asleep over their reading material – given how little sleep any of them had gotten the night before, Blair thought having a nap might be the best way of putting in the next few hours. Setting his book aside, he curled on his side and, closing his eyes, he thought about what Jim had said that morning, about still wanting him as a partner regardless ....

He snapped awake at the sound of Joel's booming voice. Scrubbing his eyes, he sat up and waved, and then slid to his feet to hasten down the ward. Joel was carrying several large bags in one hand and a tray of large, steaming cups of coffee in the other. Inhaling deeply, Blair thought the aroma paradisiacal.

"Man, you are a life-saver," he crooned, as he accepted a cup.

"Donuts!" Henri cheered, peering into one of the bags, and then he slapped Joel on the shoulder.

They all crowded around, sipping coffee and choosing amongst the two dozen donuts and muffins Joel had brought in his care package. "Jim told me breakfast was pretty bad," Joel told them, with a wide smile. "So it seemed only right to bring you guys some real food. Might even be enough there for breakfast tomorrow morning. But don't worry – we'll make sure you don't starve."

Joel couldn't stay long, but he said he'd be back to visit again either later that day or the next.

Just before noon, Megan and Rhonda showed up with massive deli sandwiches, more coffee, cold cans of soda and a good-sized bag of ice to keep them cool, and bags of chips. Delighted, the men praised them as veritable angels of mercy. Megan snorted, and Rhonda blushed at their enthusiasm. "Got to do our bit to keep up your strength," Connor told them. "Don't want to be short-handed any longer than necessary."

"You're all heart, Connor," Brown mumbled around his sandwich.

After the women had left, the others decided they wanted to try to win some of their money back from Blair, so once again they gathered around the little bedside table. The game filled the long afternoon hours, and gave them all a reason to laugh, tease, or groan theatrically at the loss of a big pot. The lab technician, the one from the evening before, came and went with her vials of blood and, passing the bags of chips and enjoying the cans of soda, the men played on until their dinner trays arrived. Lukewarm cream of something soup, baked tiny breast of chicken, a lump of instant mashed potatoes and previously frozen, soggy string beans were less than appealing, but at least they weren't starving. Jim and Simon arrived not long after with pizzas and beer – and were welcomed like gods.

"Beer?" Blair questioned, but quietly, because he didn't want to be lynched.

"I called Cameron, and he said he couldn't see why we couldn't bring it – and he said he'd clear it with the nurses," Jim replied with a conspiratorial grin. "But they'll all enjoy it more," he added with a nod toward the others, "if they think they're getting away with something."

Simon and Jim helped themselves to the food, too, and joined the card game.

About an hour later, Jim sniffed and went very still. Frowning, he sniffed again.

"What? Something in the pizza setting off your allergies?" Blair asked, looking up from his cards.

"No," Jim replied, his voice low and taut. He looked around at the others, all of them watching him warily, having heard something in his voice or seen what Blair did on his face. "We need to talk to your doctor."

"Aw, dammit," Simon growled, low and sorry.

"Who?" Blair asked, not doubting Jim's ability to sense the illness before it was readily apparent, nor questioning his evident decision to reveal what he sensed in front of the others. This was too important and there was no one in the ward they couldn't trust.

Jim's jaw clenched with mute regret, and he swallowed hard. "I'm sorry, Mac," he said. "I ... I can smell something off in your body chemistry. Might be nothing, but I don't think we should take the chance. And ..." he hesitated, took a deep breath. Turning to Blair, he said, "And I'm getting the same scent from you."

Mac looked shell-shocked and Blair reached out to grip his arm. "We spent the most time with them yesterday, so it's not really a surprise," he said, striving with all that he was to stay calm. "Jim, you and Simon need to get out of here – tell the nurses, tell them I've got a headache from hell and so does Mac, and that they have to call Cameron." Turning back to Mac, he said gently, "C'mon, we might not be actively contagious yet, but we can't take any chances. We need to move away from the others."

"He can smell it?" Mac asked, sounding stunned.

Looking at Jim, Blair nodded. "Yeah. Good thing for us. We'll get a head-start on the medication. Simon, Jim, you guys go, get out of here, now."

Simon was already moving toward the door, but Jim was still standing by the table. "I'm thinking maybe it's time I got my feet wet, Chief," he said.

Blair knew immediately what he meant, that he was ready to 'come into the water', to explore and share the mystery of what had happened at the fountain. But Blair couldn't allow it, couldn't risk Jim getting sick, especially not now, when he knew he had contracted the damned disease. With him down for the count, who would be able to help Jim cope with the effects of the illness – and who knew what those effects would be with his senses? "No, Jim. This isn't the time. Please, go with Simon."

"I don't think you're contagious yet," Jim replied. "There's no danger."

Blair was drawing Mac toward the far end of the ward. Looking over his shoulder, he said, "You can't know that, not for sure. It's not safe in here now."

"You better do what he says, man," Henri offered gently. "Simon can't afford another one of us being stuck in here."

Jim held his gaze a moment more, but turned and left the ward. Blair let out the breath he was holding and closed his eyes in relief.

Less than an hour later, Cameron arrived, carrying their charts. "The lab results show an increase in both of your white cell counts – your bodies are getting ready for battle," he said briskly, his tone matter-of-fact. "So, even though we haven't found direct evidence of the disease, and you're not yet contagious, we're going to move the two of you into a separate ward, and begin the antibiotics."

Wordlessly, Blair and Mac picked up the bags they'd already packed with their gear. Kinsey held Mac back, and wrapped him in a hug. Rafe touched Blair's shoulder as he passed and murmured, "Hang in there."

Henri swept him into a hard embrace. "No damned way are you going to cash in your chips, Hairboy – I expect a chance to win some of my money back, y'hear?"

His throat too thick to speak, Blair hugged him back and nodded his agreement. He'd do his utmost best to give Henri that chance.

He and Mac followed Dr. Cameron out of the ward and around the corner of the hall to another pristine, space-age chamber. Simon and Jim were standing there, outside the isolation ward, waiting for them. Blair gaped at them, having thought – hoped – this particular battle was already over and won.

"We'll be back to see how you're both doing tomorrow," Simon told them, his gaze moving from Mac to Blair. "Whatever you need, you just ask."

"Thanks, Simon," Blair replied. "I ... don't bother trying to track down Naomi. I don't know where she is, anyway, and there's no point in worrying her – it'll be all over, one way or another, before she could get here."

Simon's jaw clenched but he nodded as he reached out to pat Blair's back as he passed. But Blair paused to look up at him. "I don't want Jim, or anyone else, to go in there," he said firmly.

"Sandburg," Jim protested, but Simon placed a hand on his arm.

"Not now, Jim," he counseled. "Let's let them get settled, and let the staff get them hooked up to those intravenous antibiotics the doctor told us about. We'll take it a step at a time."

His gaze on Blair, Jim eased away from Simon's touch. Stepping to the side, he gestured toward the entry to the ward. "Simon's right. You need to get settled in there. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Through the glass – you'll see me through the glass, right?" Blair pushed.

Moving closer, Jim just gave him that sweet, scary smile before drawing him into a solid embrace. "Yeah, Chief," he murmured. "You'll definitely see me through the glass. Don't worry, alright? It's gonna be okay. Just ... just get as much rest as you can."

Much as he worried about the contact, Blair didn't pull away. Instead, closing his eyes, he held his breath and hugged Jim tightly. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he conjured a smile of his own as he drew away, and then he followed Mac into the ward.

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

Jim felt sick with helplessness as he watched through the glass wall as Blair moved through the ward and chose the bed at the end, while Mac chose one closer to the entry. Mac pulled a deck of cards out of his bag and Jim barely heard him ask Blair if he wanted to play some cards. Blair shrugged and then nodded. Cameron left them to confer with a nurse at the station down the hall.

Shaking his head, Jim turned away. "He doesn't deserve this," he muttered, hollow and very afraid. All he could think about was the risk Blair faced because of his scarred lungs – which only served to recall the soul-crushing image of Blair floating facedown in that damned fountain. Shivering with dread, he told himself that Blair was going to be fine. God, he had to believe that, had to hold onto that. The kid would be put on the necessary antibiotics immediately, and the drugs would kill the infection. He was going to be alright.

Simon clasped his shoulder, gripping hard. "C‘mon," he rumbled. "Standing out here and staring at them doesn't do any of us any good. We‘ve got work to do."

Reluctantly, Jim nodded and walked with Simon toward the elevator. "You know I'm not going to stay out here, not if he gets sick," he said with firm deliberation.

"Jim," Simon sighed, his brow furrowed, "if you go in there, Mac's family will want to do the same, and more people will be at risk."

After pushing the button for the elevator, Jim leveled a hard gaze at Banks. "What they do is their decision. I won't leave him in there alone. Not if he gets sick. I won't."

"You know that's not what Blair wants," Simon argued, but without much conviction.

Jim bit his lip and stepped forward when the elevator doors opened. Simon was right -- there was no question about Blair wanting him to stay well away, even out of the hospital. For the last two days, Jim had been anxious not to alienate his partner, to do what Blair wanted, to not push, but this disease went beyond their disagreement, beyond everything. Blair was his best friend, his partner, the man who'd kept him sane and helped him hone his senses, the man who had given up his life's work to protect him. Jim was determined to be where he had to be if and when Blair needed him, and that's just the way it was going to be, whether Blair liked it or not.

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

When he woke the next morning, Blair was aware of a dull headache behind his eyes, but he told himself it was just stress. He and Mac had started the intravenous antibiotic regime the night before and, with any kind of luck at all, they shouldn't get all that sick. However, Cameron had warned him that his lungs put him at somewhat greater risk, especially as the antibiotic didn't kill the infectious bacteria outright, but rather prohibited it from reproducing, so the disease would have a day, maybe as much as two days, to wreak havoc on his lungs before it was decimated. That's enough to give anyone a headache, he thought as he shaved and then brushed his teeth.

Finished with his ablutions, and very conscious of the chill air on his bare back, courtesy of the hospital gown the night nurse had insisted he and Mac put on, he took hold of his mobile IV pole and hastened back to bed. Cameron had instructed both him and Mac to rest as much as they could, and to drink lots of fluids. Drawing the sheet and blanket up over his shoulders, he huddled in the bed and closed his eyes, hoping to get a bit more sleep. But the breakfast trays arrived and the lights were brightened to daytime intensity, so he gave up on hiding in sleep and reached for his book. However, reading only aggravated his headache so, disgruntled to have no distraction from his mounting fears, he tossed the book aside. By the time the nurse came in with their new IV bottles a half hour later, the pain was bad enough that he knew he had to admit to it and request something for relief.

Hearing Mac also request a pain killer didn't make Blair feel any better.

"We've really got it, don't we?" Mac asked rhetorically, his voice heavy with dread.

"Afraid so," Blair agreed, not having any doubts about it since Jim had sensed their bodies' reactions to becoming ill the evening before. "But the good news is that we're here and already being treated," Blair went on, doing his best to project solid if not exactly cheerful confidence. "The odds are good that we'll be okay."

Mac rolled off his bed and, careful of his IV tube, drew his red flannel bathrobe around his shoulders. Moving down the ward, he shoved a chair closer to the side of Blair's bed and spun it around to sit on it backwards, with his arms folded across the top of it. Mac glanced around warily before leaning closer still, and his voice was low as he asked, "It's all true, isn't it? Ellison is some kind of superman."

"No!" Blair exclaimed, surprised by the question and immediately defensive. But then he remembered what Brown and Rafe had told him the day they'd captured the Chavez brothers, that most in the department had some idea that Jim was special and that the paper he'd written hadn't been a lie. Heaving a deep breath, he pushed himself up to rest his back against the headboard. "Jim isn't a superman," he clarified, aiming for a matter-of-fact tone. "He was just born with senses that are a little better -- well, okay, a whole lot better -- than most of the rest of us, that's all."

"That's all???" Mac challenged, his baritone rising to a high tenor. "Jesus, Sandburg, he smelled the plague on us!"

"No, Mac, he didn't," Blair explained. "Jim smelled differences in body chemistry ... you know, from the scent of our sweat or breath, and he could tell that something was going on with us, that there were changes in our bodies that weren't happening with the other guys. I think, from what Cameron told us about the lab results last evening, Jim was detecting the increases of our white blood cells and maybe other natural changes as our bodies get ready to fight off the infection."

"And you don't think that's weird?" Mac demanded. "How can you stand living with someone who can ...." His voice fell off as if he couldn't begin to even imagine what Jim could do or how invasive that could be.

"No, I don't think it's weird," Blair snapped. "I think it's wonderful, a kind of beautiful miracle and I just wish more of us had the same abilities. Mac, we've got a head-start on beating this plague because of Jim. As for living with him?" Blair shrugged. "Yeah, okay, there's a certain loss of privacy, but nothing to worry about. Jim's careful. He doesn't listen in on conversations on the phone, for example, and he doesn't read what I'm writing from across the room -- he respects me and gives me all the space he can. He's my best friend and he gave me a home when my place got blown up, and he's a lot of fun to hang around with. Man, I'm lucky to know him, to be able to work with him, and I'm grateful for that, for him, every single day of my life."

"What you did -- giving that press conference -- impressed the hell out of just about everyone downtown," Mac confided then. "But ... we could never figure out why you gave everything up to cover up his, uh, skills. Why the big secret?"

Blair looked away, debating how much to share. "Jim's senses aren't all good news," he finally replied. "Sometimes they act up, cause him problems. We can't afford to let the bad guys know anything about them, in case they try to use that knowledge against him." Returning his gaze to Mac's brown eyes, he added, "And there are enough crazies out there that some might come to town just to take on the guy with the famous senses. We don't need that, you know? And we‘ve been careful, right from the beginning, to ensure due process is followed, to not rely exclusively on his senses, to be damned sure the evidence we have can be taken into court."

Mac nodded thoughtfully, and rubbed at his aching brow. "Okay, I guess I can see that," he allowed.

Returning with their pain meds, the nurse shooed Mac back to his own bed and encouraged them both to try to sleep. When Blair complained about the bright lights, she nodded sympathetically and said she'd have them dimmed. Not long after, she or maybe another nurse – the isolation garb tended to make everyone look the same – ushered the lawyer, Royce Bennett, into the chamber. When he saw Mac and Blair, he began to protest that he shouldn't be there, that sharing a ward with the arresting officers could compromise his defense of his clients, but the nurse cut him off.

"I'm surprised you've not been informed that both Chavez brothers are deceased," she said, steering him toward one of the beds. "So I guess there's no conflict after all."

Bennett gaped at her, rendered speechless, while Blair shifted his gaze to meet Mac's somber expression. "They didn't get the antibiotics in time to do any good," he said, determined to be positive, to remain confident that survival wasn't just a possibility but a probability. Mac gave him a lopsided smile and nodded. The lawyer just looked askance at him, as if not sure what to say, which was fine with Blair; he really didn't want to get into a discussion about odds and percentages. He already knew them: without timely treatment, ninety-five percent of those afflicted with the disease died; with treatment, the odds were substantially better, but not everyone was guaranteed to survive.

Deciding the stats didn't bear thinking about, really not up for any conversation at all, Blair curled on his side to face the wall. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep but his thoughts were whirling out of control. Bits and pieces of issues and concerns jumbled together, slipping in and out of his active attention like flotsam caught in the tide, rising and falling with the pulse of the relentless and nauseating throb of his headache. The fight he'd been having with Jim and his doubts about his role in Jim's life contrasted with Jim's message the day before. The mind-blowing realization that the 'secret' was out and he was more accepted by the members of the PD than he'd ever dreamed could be possible crashed hard into his fears about whether he'd have any future at all.

Despite his efforts to not think about it, Blair found he couldn't stop thinking about the disease that had landed them all there. There was no question that the three of them had pneumonic plague, a disease that swiftly killed nearly all who contracted it, and more of those exposed were likely to become ill, too. Would they – could they – all survive, effectively beating the odds? Blair figured Mac's chances were probably fairly good because the man was obviously strong and healthy, but the lawyer was overweight and he had the ruddy complexion of someone who overindulged in the fruit of the vine and distilled grain products. Blair really didn't know how to rate his own chances because he was also healthy and in pretty good shape. It all depended on how much his lungs could take before they quit on him. The antibiotics would help, definitely, but it would take time for the meds to overcome the bacteria, time he wasn't sure he had. Fear clawed at his belly and lungs, stealing his breath, leaving him feeling achy and sick. God, he did not want to die. His hands fisted in the sheets and he forced himself to breathe deeply and slowly. Panicking wouldn't help.

Man, he wished he knew whether Jim could manage on his own or not. Why the hell hadn't he tested that long ago, when he'd first begun to suspect that Jim was doing fine without him? Selfish, that's what he was. Too damned selfish, because he loved the work, the time he spent with Jim, and the home they shared, to face up to not being needed. At least the damned dissertation and all of the notes he'd assiduously kept over the years might finally end up being good for something. If Jim needed a new partner, everything Blair knew about his amazing senses would be available.

For a while, his mind drifted back over the years as he remembered how unnerving it had been to try to come up with answers and ideas, to understand what Jim was experiencing as well as he could so he could anticipate problems; so much guesswork, so very much good luck in chancing upon what did work – all of it, every moment, scary and exhilarating and so very fulfilling. Sorrow welled to mingle with the fear that he was trying so hard to ignore. He wanted to keep working with Jim. Was that so much to ask, to hope for? Whatever problems they had could be worked out -- if only they got the chance, the time.

I want to live! his soul cried out, and he fervently hoped his prayers would be heard by the Sentience that created and illuminated the cosmos.

Blair had just started to drift toward sleep when his breath caught and his lungs convulsed; he coughed raggedly and, when he got his breath back, he sagged against the pillows. His eyes were dry and scratchy with fever, and he could feel the heat on his skin, even as he shivered and felt as if he'd never be warm again. The damned disease was moving fast. Staring at the ceiling, he concentrated on breathing slow and deep, and did his best to stifle the next cough before it could erupt.

Cameron, now garbed in the isolation get-up, came in half an hour later to take their temperatures and listen to their chests with his ice-cold stethoscope. Blair shivered as he watched the physician's face. When the doctor leaned back and examined the thermometer, he demanded, "Well, how do they sound?"

"Your lungs? Not too bad," the specialist told him, but his expression remained grave. "I'll prescribe something to help keep them as clear as possible, to give the antibiotics time to work. We'll give you aspirin to counteract the fever that's building, and that will take the edge off your headache, and the generalized muscular aching in your body, too. It'll be another twenty-four to thirty-six hours before the antibiotics fully kick in."

Blair bit his lip and nodded his understanding; it was going to be a battle for his life and only time would reveal the victor. Looking away, he glanced through the glass wall and saw Joel and Megan looking in at him, their expressions drawn with worry. He tried to smile and he gave them a small wave, but he heartily wished there were curtains that could be drawn for some privacy. The indignity of being on display like an animal in some zoo, while struggling to breathe with everyone watching, appalled and angered him.

But there was nothing he could do about it.

For days now, ever since he'd seen the cliff Jim wanted him to climb, he'd felt as if he was caught in a whirlwind of activity not of his making, riding a juggernaut that was racing faster and faster. From here on in, just about everything was totally beyond his control.

Half turning away, Cameron nodded to the visitors on the other side of the glass shield. Glancing back at Blair he advised him, "That's as close as anyone is going to get, I'm afraid. Your friends weren't happy to learn that now that the disease is actively contagious, visitors inside the ward are prohibited."

"Oh, hey, I certainly understand the reason for that," Blair gusted. "And I'm glad you're keeping everyone out. I sure don't want any of them exposed to this bug -- I'm just sorry you and the staff have to risk being in here with us."

The doctor's eyes crinkled above his face mask, and he lightly patted Blair's foot through the blanket. "Don't worry about us -- this is what we're paid for. You just rest and concentrate on breathing."

"I can do that," Blair assured him. Shivering miserably under the blankets, he succumbed to another bout of still dry, hacking coughs. When he'd gotten his breath, feeling rung out, he added less certainly, "I think."

"Don't worry, if it becomes necessary, we'll put you on oxygen," Cameron said as he turned to go. "And I'll ask the nurse to bring in more blankets when she brings you your new medication."

"Thanks," Blair croaked as he shifted onto his side and looked down the ward at Mac and Bennett. "How're they doing?"

"Very well, so far," Cameron advised him.

Glad of that, Blair gave the doctor a small smile and then closed his eyes against the glare of the overhead lights.

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

Jim wasn't happy to learn about the restrictions on visiting when Joel and Megan returned to the station.

"That lawyer is in there with them now, but he doesn't look sick yet. Mac's doin' okay but Blair was coughing, and he looked feverish already," Joel went on, shaking his head morosely. "I sure hope those antibiotics work."

Averting his gaze, Jim simply nodded. He was chilled to hear that Blair was getting so ill so fast; his damaged lungs made him so terrifyingly vulnerable. Jim had to clench his jaw against the urge to curse Alex ... and himself, for it was as much his fault as hers that Blair was once again facing the grim specter of death.

No visitors, huh? We'll see about that, he thought with implacable determination. Chewing on his lip, he pondered the options for circumventing the 'no visitors' ruling and then he returned to his desk to set the necessary actions in motion.

For the rest of the afternoon, the residual MCU team continued to run down reports on who had been in contact with the Chavez brothers, particularly during the time when they'd been contagious. The ‘waiting room', as the ward that Henri and Rafe were still in had been dubbed, was filling up, as was the ward where the lawyer had originally been admitted. Mac had spent the most time with the brothers during their processing, but others had been in contact with them, too, whether to snap their photos or to ink their fingers to take their prints. A photo of the two men was being shown every half hour on the local television channels, and had been picked up nationally, with a warning that it was a matter of life and death for anyone who had been in contact with them to go to the nearest health clinic or hospital. A similar warning was printed in each of the local papers and was posted on telephone poles all over the neighborhood where the two men had been arrested. Dozens of people had begun to flock in for treatment, from waitresses at local diners and fancy restaurants, to hotel clerks and maids. The MCU team was checking out each contact and had, so far, identified several ruffians who had more than likely aided and abetted the theft of the weapons and explosives from the armory. With luck, the infection would be quickly contained within the city, with anyone at risk receiving immediate treatment.

As the day wore to a close, Jim knocked on Simon's door and then entered. At his boss's inquiring look, he said, "I need up to a week off."

Simon's expression of mild curiosity hardened into suspicion. "You know you can't get into the ward to be with him, and you won't do him any good just standing and looking in through that glass wall."

Jim shrugged and looked away, toward the windows. "I have to be there," he replied tightly, unwilling to trust even Simon with his plan for entry, knowing that his friend might well try to stop him. Meeting Simon's gaze, reading the sorrow and sympathy there, he had to swallow hard against the stifling emotions that filled his chest, the fear and grief, the useless anger and helpless regret.

Simon nodded slowly, then waved at the door. "Go on, get out of here. If I need you, I know where to find you -- and if you need anything, you let me know."

"Thanks, Simon," Jim rasped and turned to go.

An hour later, casually dressed in a blue cotton shirt and jeans, Jim reported to the duty nurse at the desk on the isolation floor. After flashing his fake credentials as the private duty nurse the Sandburg family had ostensibly hired, he was quizzed briefly on his knowledge of isolation procedure before being given Blair's chart to review. Once he'd read it over, noting the upward trend of the fever and the order for oxygen should it become necessary, he was directed to the ward. He knew they'd eventually figure out that he wasn't simply the first of a team of private nurses engaged for one-on-one 'round the clock care but, by then, he'd've been inside for hours and there'd be no point in removing him or prohibiting him from being there. He'd be where he needed to be -- beside Blair, giving him whatever care he could.

Jim carefully donned the required green garb, from head covering, mask, gown, and gloves, to booties that covered his shoes. He carried pitchers of cool juice and water that had been left in the entry area by the staff into the ward, stopping to offer Mac and the lawyer their choice of beverage and filling their cups and small carafes with juice before moving to the bed at the far end. For a moment, he studied his partner, cataloguing his vital signs and noting the fever had notched up another degree since the last time Sandburg's temperature had been taken. The lawyer was only starting to complain about headache, but was otherwise still well, and there was a striking difference between Mac's condition and Blair's. Mac was only slightly feverish, and he wasn't coughing yet. But Blair, God, Blair was evidently very ill, the fever a hectic flush on his otherwise pallid face. He was shivering with chills though he was huddled under a mound of blankets, and his cough had become deep and rough.

Clearing his throat, Jim asked if Blair wanted either juice or water.

"Uh, water, I guess," Blair rasped lethargically, and rolled slowly onto his back before trying to lever himself upright to drink.

"Let me help," Jim murmured, and put an arm around Blair's shoulders to lift him, while holding the cup close to his lips.

Blair drank carefully, slowly, and had to pause to hastily turn his face away to smother a cough with his hands. Jim lifted his shoulders higher, to help ease his breathing and, when Blair was again ready, he brought the cup back to his partner's mouth. When Blair had had enough, Jim flipped and plumped his pillows before easing him back down and drawing the blankets up around his shoulders.

"Thanks, man," Blair whispered hoarsely as he curled onto his side and closed his eyes.

"Your fever is climbing," Jim told him, his voice quiet, soothing. "You'll need to keep drinking fluids, and I might need to bathe you to bring the fever down if it gets much higher."

Blair just nodded, mumbling sardonically, "That'll be fun." But then he went very still. Frowning, he muttered, "No, can't be." But he shifted in the bed so that he could look up at the nurse he'd scarcely noticed in his misery.

Jim hurriedly turned away, busying himself with filling the metal carafe on the small table by the bed. Though he'd been careful, Jim wondered if there had been something about his voice, touch, or the strength of the arm that had supported him, that had penetrated through Blair's fever-dulled awareness of the world around him?

The mask muffled his voice, the gloves hid his hands; and the cap covered his hair; the isolation garb was an effective disguise, especially since Blair would not be expecting him to be there, not when visitors were prohibited. But, sooner or later, Blair would no doubt realize it was him. Jim preferred it be later because he had no doubt his partner would have him tossed out of the ward, to protect him. How often over the years, in large and small ways, had Blair protected him? How often had he even noticed? Jim shook his head. Regrets were of no use. But Blair needed him now, needed someone watching over him because his life was very much at risk. There was no way on God's green earth that Jim would leave him to suffer through this alone. Later, once he'd been by Blair's side for hours, he'd argue that kicking him out at that point would make little sense. By then, it would be an argument he knew he'd win.

Blair squinted at him, blinking to clear his vision, but another cough overcame him, and he shivered miserably even as he tried to catch his breath. Strong hands again supported him, rubbing his back soothingly as he gasped and easing him gently down when he sagged weakly, exhausted by the harsh coughing. Blair sighed and muttered, "Must be imagining things, hallucinating. He can't be here." Wearily, he slid into restless sleep.

Jim filled a basin with tepid water and gently bathed Blair's flushed face. Listening closely to his semi-conscious partner's increasing struggle to breathe through lungs filling with fluid, he decided that Blair needed oxygen. The mask was already attached to the tubing that ran from the access pipe in the wall above the bed, and Jim turned on the flow before easing the plastic contraption over Blair's face. Then, careful to keep Blair covered and as warm as possible, he bathed one limb at a time to counteract the upward climb of the killing fever.

Repeatedly, Blair convulsed with hacking coughing fits that left him gasping and struggling to breathe, and that terrified Jim. Each time, he lifted Blair's shoulders, bracing his partner's body with his own, holding him steady and secure, and wishing, wishing so hard that he could make things better or change places or something, anything, to ease Blair's suffering.

And each time, once he'd gotten his breath, Blair murmured an abject apology, as if the damned disease was his fault. "I sure hope you don't get this, man," he whispered hoarsely. "Wouldn't be fair, to get sick just 'cause you're helping us."

Jim lightly smoothed the limp curls away from Blair's face and told him not to worry about it, that there wasn't anywhere else he'd rather be.

So sick that he was only half-conscious, Blair gave him a wan smile but shook his head. "Anywhere'd be better'n here," he argued, but with no energy.

"Shh, just rest," Jim told him, and then, his heart aching that he couldn't do more, he resumed his patient and persistent battle against the fever, bathing Blair's face and neck, his right arm and left, his chest and then his abdomen, his right leg and foot and then the left, paying particular attention to the joints where blood traveled close to the surface. If he could cool the blood, the blood would cool the rest of his partner's body.

An hour later, Blair's harsh, raw cough changed, sounding deeper, more painful, croupier ... and it was no longer dry but thick and for the first time, as he lay back panting, his mouth was flecked with blood.

His chest tight with anguished worry, Jim pressed the intercom to inform the duty nurse at the desk, so that she could alert Blair's physician. Not that there was anything more that could be done; this was just one more sign of the relentless progress of the disease. Filled with anxiety, wishing to hell that the antibiotics would soon do their job, Jim gently wiped the blood from Blair's lips.

Out of the corner of his eye, he picked up movement in the hallway outside the ward, and he glanced up to see Simon staring at him. Joel and Megan were there, too, holding vigil, fear for Blair etched on their faces. Jim cocked a brow at Simon, mutely asking if his boss, his friend, would blow his cover, but Simon just shook his head. The big man's gaze shifted to Blair and sorrow flooded the dark eyes. Abruptly, Jim turned away. He didn't want to see sorrow or fear; didn't want to face the fact that others doubted whether Blair would survive. Resuming his bathing of Blair's fever-hot skin, murmuring soft reassurances, he refused to contemplate any outcome but that Blair would beat the odds and overcome the disease. It was just a matter of time, hours, maybe a day, and the antibiotics would kick in. Blair just had to hold on to give the medicine a chance to work.

And Jim was going to hold on to him, to make sure Blair didn't let go.

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

As the evening wore on, the nursing staff seemed to remain unaware of Jim's charade. When Joel and Megan left to go home, Simon brought him a beef sandwich and a cup of coffee from the cafeteria, leaving them in the antechamber outside the ward's sliding doors. Grateful, Jim slipped out and took care to remove his isolation gear without contaminating himself; even so, he washed his hands thoroughly in the sink next to the shelves of isolation garments before eating.

Watching him from the entry from the hall, Simon demanded softly, "Are you nuts? Sandburg will skin you alive when he realizes the stunt you're pulling."

Jim gave him a rueful grin and shrugged. "He'd do the same for me, and we both know it," he countered. Sobering, he went on, "He needs the constant care, Simon, and the staff here are too busy to provide it – all I've seen them do with Mac and the lawyer is check their temperature and blood pressure every two hours. If Blair's fever gets any higher, it'll burn away all his energy and he'll have nothing left to fight with."

His gaze falling away, his expression grim, Simon nodded in understanding. "I just hope you don't get sick, too," he rumbled.

"I know what I'm doing and I'm being careful," Jim assured him. "I won't do Sandburg any good if I catch the bug. Even after he gets through this crisis, he's going to be pretty weak and need support."

"You plan on staying in there all night?"

"I plan on staying until I know he's going to be okay," Jim stated. He swallowed the last bite and drank the rest of the coffee. Glancing into the ward as he donned a fresh gown, mask and gloves, he said, "The lawyer – Bennett – his fever has barely started. Mac's doing okay, at least so far; he's got a bit of a fever and the cough has started, but I think the antibiotics will have an effect long before he'd ever get to the state Blair's in. It's Sandburg's lungs ... he's more vulnerable to the attack."

"I know." Simon sighed, stepping back from the entry and turning away. "I'll let Mac's partner know he's holding his own."

Jim was about to re-enter the isolation chamber when he glanced through the glass wall into the hallway and was astonished to see Blair's former mentor and dissertation advisor, Eli Stoddard. The tall man's narrow shoulders were slumped as if he carried the weight of the world; great sorrow was deeply etched in the lines of his face, making him seem older than his sixty-something years. Frowning, Jim rapped on the glass to get his attention and, when Stoddard shot a startled glance at him, he waved the older man to the antechamber's entryway.

The academic hesitated, but then slowly paced to the doorway, which slid open at his approach. When Jim pulled his mask down around his neck, Stoddard blinked in surprise and then shook his head. "I should have known you wouldn't be far away," he said, bitterness clear in his voice.

"What are you doing here?" Jim demanded, knowing he sounded cold and not caring. For days after his press conference, Blair had tried to reach Stoddard only to be told the professor wasn't available. He'd left innumerable messages for the man and, though Blair had tried to hide it, he had been devastated when Stoddard had never gotten back to him.

"I heard on the news that Blair was one of the officers infected and ... and I wanted to assure myself that he'd be alright but ...." Eli's voice drifted off as he gazed past Jim into the long ward. "He's dying, isn't he," he rasped, as if there was no question, his voice thick with grief. "I ... I wish I could speak with him."

"Yeah, well, not so long ago, he tried hard to speak to you but you were too busy," Jim retorted sarcastically.

Stoddard's gaze met his, and Jim could readily read the cold anger as the professor straightened his back and squared his shoulders. "This is all because of you," Stoddard accused with icy fury. "He gave up everything for you, to support you, to keep your damned secret – and now he's going to die." Eli's voice caught, and tears shimmered in his eyes before he hurriedly looked away, blinking hard, as if to hide the depth of his emotion. He cleared his throat and rasped, "I wish I could believe you're worth all the sacrifices he's made, all that you've cost him."

Jim gaped at him, stunned by the attack – astonished that Stoddard knew the truth. Old anger flared and bitterness warred with contempt, though he didn't know whether it was for himself or for Sandburg. "I should have known he told you," he grated scornfully. "No wonder he tried so hard to reach you."

"You ungrateful ..." Eli snapped in disgust. "He never told me your name but I guessed long ago, years before the improper release of information by Berkshire. When I challenged him, he denied you were his source – just said it was someone in the police department." Eli shook his head. "And you know, he was so damned convincing that I really wasn't sure until he gave that damned press conference and crucified himself for you. What? You don't think that I wouldn't know he hadn't falsified his research – I've been reviewing his work, his findings, for years. I know what he did, and I despise you for allowing him to destroy his life's work, his future, and worse, for allowing him to be vilified and not coming forward with the truth. Even after all that, you could still believe ...." Stoddard regarded him with cold disdain. "He deserves better from you. And you certainly don't deserve a friend like him."

Stung, instantly defensive, Jim was about to protest when Stoddard seemed to sag, his energy spent. The academic lifted a shaking hand, as if for peace. "I love that boy like a son," he whispered hoarsely, tears again glazing his eyes. "And now he's ... he's going to die. And they won't let me see him, talk to him, tell him ... tell him I never believed that drivel, but that I'd also never betray his trust. I was angry, you see, when he threw it all away. I wish ... I wish he'd spoken to me first. Maybe we could have found another way .... But I suppose it doesn't matter now." He pressed trembling lips into a tight line and, one hand lifting to cover his eyes, he began to turn away, but Jim reached out to grip his arm.

"Wait," Jim rasped, and tightened his grip when Eli tried to pull away. He was shaken by Stoddard's words, disgusted with himself for once again jumping to the wrong conclusion and reflexively assuming Blair had betrayed his trust. What the hell was wrong with him? Why was that always his first reaction?

Shaking off the questions he had no answer for, Jim met the professor's suddenly wary gaze. God, the man looked as if he thought Jim might actually strike him. In that moment, Jim felt ashamed. The old man was right, after all, about so much; but he was very wrong about one thing. "He's not going to die."

When Stoddard gave him a pitying look, as if he was unable to face facts, Jim insisted, "Blair's going to be okay. We caught the infection in time and he's being given the necessary medication. He's, uh, he's having trouble because of his lungs, but he just has to get through the night, to give the antibiotic time to work. I'll ... I'll tell him you were here. I know that will mean a great deal to him." Jim hesitated, but felt compelled to hurry on, "I hope you'll come back to see him when he's better. And, well, maybe you'd like to come to his thirtieth birthday party in a few weeks. It's a surprise party. He'd be delighted to see you there – I know how important you are to him. If there are others at the university who would like to be there, too, just bring them along."

Stoddard was now looking at him as if he might be insane, and Jim couldn't really blame him. Softening his tone, he confided, "I didn't know he was going to give that press conference."

"Perhaps not, but your silence since has been very eloquent," Stoddard retorted, scathing in his contempt.

Jim's gaze fell away and he shrugged helplessly. "There are reasons for keeping the secret."

"Reasons that count for more than what Blair has given up?" Eli demanded.

"Sandburg evidently thought so," Jim sniped, angry that the professor was continuing to attack him after he'd held out an olive branch, but his heart wasn't in it; the man's caustic assessment of his behavior was too close to his own. Sighing, disheartened by what he was increasingly believing was indefensible, he went on, "But I've been thinking that the reasons aren't as important as what he's given up."

Eli snorted. "Oh, you've been thinking that, have you? That just maybe his life, his career, his dreams might be as valid and valuable as yours?" Stoddard threw up his hands, as if faced with a lost cause. "Good God, you're arrogant. For years now, right from the beginning, it's always and only been about what you want and what you need. Have you ever, even once, honestly considered what he needed?" He paused and looked past Jim into the isolation ward, and his anger, his frustration bled out of his face, leaving him pallid with grief. "Oh, what's the use?" he muttered. "What does it matter now? It's too late. And in shunning him, I suppose I've been no better than you, more caught up in what I thought, what I wanted from him, than concerned about what he needed from me. I'm ashamed to know I acted more like a petulant two-year-old than the friend he so badly needed."

"Why didn't you ever return his calls?" Jim asked then. "He ... he felt pretty bad about letting you down."

Stoddard's gaze dropped and he shrugged. "What could I say to him? That I thought he was a fool – brave and noble, perhaps, to fall on his sword like that, but still very foolish? Or that I didn't believe a word of it? Would that have made him feel better, when he obviously wanted everyone to believe his work was nothing but lies? I was very angry with him, with his decision to chuck it all after so many years of hard work and I was disappointed, because he has the talent, the intellect, to be truly great, to make a huge contribution, but he threw it all away. I don't think talking to me at that point would have helped him feel any better about what he'd done." Eli sighed, and his tone softened as he added, "He deserved better from both of us and now ... well, at least you're doing what you can to make him as comfortable as possible."

Jim had had it with the recriminations and 'mea culpa' routine; the words didn't change anything, made nothing better. And Stoddard's conviction that Blair was dying pissed him off. Squaring his shoulders, he snapped, "Okay, okay, you're right about nearly everything you said. He's a much better friend than I deserve; I know that. But you're wrong to give up on him. Blair's tough, and he's not a quitter. He's going to beat this."

"I dearly hope you're right," the professor said quietly. As if wishing he could believe Jim, he added bleakly, "And, yes, if he survives to celebrate his birthday, I'd very much like to be there, as would a few others, like Jack Kelso, who didn't give any credence to that press conference, either. You can call my office with the details of where and what time."

"Fine," Jim replied with a nod, and he couldn't help smiling at how pleased and excited Sandburg would be to see Stoddard and others from Rainier at the party. But then he heard Blair coughing again, sounding as if he couldn't catch his breath. "Just come to see him when he's feeling better," he urged as he released the professor's arm and hastily pulled his mask back up over his mouth and nose. "He's missed you, missed your friendship."

"I've missed him, too," Eli admitted, sounding very sad and weary.

Stepping back, tightening the ribbons of the mask behind his head, Jim said as he turned away, "I have to get back to him. He'll be glad to know you came to see him."

Jim hastened past the row of beds, ignoring Bennett but nodding at Mac. The street cop was sitting up and regarding Blair with a mixture of fear and sorrow on his face. "Is he gonna be okay?" he called softly as Jim approached.

Pausing briefly, Jim replied with as much confidence as he could muster, "I'm sure he'll be fine."

Mac looked less than convinced but he nodded. Hurrying past, Jim rushed toward his partner who was clearly struggling to breathe. He was still several feet away when he felt the blast of heat rising from Sandburg's body, and he was alarmed by how much Blair's fever had worsened in the few minutes since he'd left his friend's side. Even more frightening was the bluish tone of Blair's skin and his almost frenzied gasping for air despite the oxygen mask. He sounded almost as if he was choking.

Jim grabbed his partner's shoulders and pulled him forward. Holding him steady against his chest with one arm braced around Blair's body, he pounded on Blair's back to loosen the thick phlegm in his lungs. "Cough, Sandburg," he urged, though he wasn't sure Blair was conscious enough to hear him. "We need to get that gunk out of your lungs."

Whether Blair had heard or the deep, hacking cough was reflexive, Jim didn't know, but he swiftly removed the oxygen mask and held tissues over Blair's mouth. "That's it, cough it up," he encouraged, and was glad the cough was productive, hoping that it was a sign that the infection's hold on his partner was breaking. But Jim's jaw tightened with alarm at the sight and scent of blood streaking the discharge and speckling Blair's lips as he gasped for breath. He'd hoped the infection wouldn't get this far, but it was clear the tissue of Blair's lungs was breaking down.

Icy fear shivered over his skin. Usually, catching the disease this early meant that it didn't get enough of a hold to kill before the medication had effect. Mac had been exposed as much as Blair over the same period of time, and he was doing okay. But most victims of the damned disease hadn't drowned only months before, didn't have lungs that were already weakened and scarred. Listening closely, he winced at the ugly wet sucking, bubbling sounds in his lungs as Blair fought for breath. For the first time, Jim couldn't beat back the question that he'd willfully held at bay for hours, and the pain of it burned in his eyes and twisted in his belly. Can Blair survive long enough for the antibiotics to work?

Panting shallowly, Blair lay bonelessly against him, resting on his strength, and he knew he had to hold himself together. There was no room here for fear or uncertainty. Blair had to believe he had a chance, that there was a reason to keep on struggling, to keep on fighting, that he could win if he didn't give up. But he'd never believe that if he was surrounded by doubt. Tenderly, Jim held him close and gently drew his lank hair back behind his ears as he replaced the oxygen mask over Blair's face. As encouragingly, as confidently as he could manage, Jim crooned, "Easy, Chief. Just breathe, okay? As deep and slow as you can."

Belatedly, he realized he might have just given himself away. Would Blair notice the nickname a stranger wouldn't use? Dammit, Blair didn't need the distraction of being angry with him or worrying about him, not now, not when the fever was sapping his strength and it was taking all he had just to keep breathing. Unconsciously holding his own breath, Jim bit his lip and waited.

Seconds ticked by and Blair didn't move, didn't shift away, only continued to sag limply against him. Thinking his partner was probably unconscious or at least oblivious in his struggle for air, Jim relaxed marginally. Then, slowly, as if it took great effort, Blair lifted a hand to weakly grip his arm. "Jim?" Blair gasped, his voice breathy and weak. "Damn it. You sh-shouldn't be –" His protest was cut off by another round of choking coughs.

Lowering his chin to rest on Blair's head, Jim rubbed slow, soothing circles on his friend's hot back. "Easy, easy," he murmured. "Don't talk right now, okay? Just breathe, Chief. Just breathe." Gradually, the coughing eased, but Jim's concerns escalated. There was more blood splattering the expectoration, and the fever was getting worse, climbing so high as to be dangerous.

Carefully, he eased Blair back against the pile of pillows, and he gently gripped his partner's shoulder. "I'm going to soak some towels in cool water, see if we can bring that fever down a notch or two, okay?"

Blair was still feebly clutching his other arm. "Y-you should go," Blair whispered hoarsely, his wide eyes urgent in their appeal, his terror for Jim's wellbeing so clear that Jim felt the ache of it deep inside. "Too d-dangerous to be in here."

"Where else would I be?" Jim asked, and winked to lighten the mood as he covered Blair's hand with his own before loosening Blair's grip and easing his arm down onto his chest. "Don't worry, buddy; I'm being careful."

Blair huffed and, closing his eyes, gave a small shake of his head, but he didn't have the breath or strength to protest further. Jim again squeezed his shoulder before turning away to fill the basin with cool water and grab a bunch of towels from the bathroom. Within a few short minutes, he covered Blair's body with cold, wet towels. Blair shivered in mute misery but, though the wet linens readily absorbed the heat from his skin, dried and grew warm to Jim's touch, the raging fever was undiminished.

"I thought f-fever was a g-good thing," Blair stuttered. "F-fights the infection."

"You can have too much of a good thing, Chief," Jim replied as he again wet the towels and replaced them on Blair's body. When he was finished, he shook his head. This wasn't working, and the fever was getting too high, far too high. "We need some ice," he muttered, then remembered the machine in the antechamber. "I'll be right back."

He paused by Mac's bed, and was pleased to see that the man was only slightly flushed. "How're you doing?" he asked.

"Better'n Blair," Mac said quietly. "How come he's so sick? Will ... well, does everyone get that sick?" he asked, trepidation shadowing his eyes.

"No, not when they get the antibiotics in time," Jim reassured him. "Sandburg ... well, Sandburg drowned earlier this year so his lungs are more vulnerable. But he'll be okay."

"Ah, that's good," Mac returned with a relieved smile. "He's a good man an' he's taken a few bad hits this year already. He doesn't deserve this, I can tell you that. I'm glad you're here, giving him the care he needs. The way he was coughing, I was getting worried, but before you got here, the other nurses just came in to bring our meds and take our temperature and blood pressure."

Jim was a bit taken aback, but then he realized that, garbed from head to toe the way he was, hidden by a mask, Mac hadn't realized who he was. So he just nodded and continued on into the antechamber. The lawyer complained that he shouldn't be in the same room as someone who was going to die, and his voice grew strident with his demand to be moved to another ward.

Jim snarled over his shoulder as he hurried past, "He's not going to die. But by all means, ask the nurses to move you somewhere else." In the antechamber, he was careful to change his gloves before he filled a bucket with ice and then two plastic jugs with ice and water from the cooler in the corner. On his way back to Blair, he ignored Bennett but left one of the jugs with Mac. "Make sure you keep drinking lots of fluids," he directed.

"Hey, thanks," Mac replied and then, looking past Jim out into the hallway, he waved. "Some of the folks from down at the station, and my wife," he explained. Turning, Jim saw Rhonda and Joel, as well as Dan Wolf, Serena and several others from Forensics and Records. "I guess Blair's partner must be tied up on a case or something. I haven't seen him for hours," the patrolman went on, his voice edged with disapproval.

Jim cut a quick look back at him. "You might be surprised at how close his partner is," he said, low and confiding. When Mac's eyes widened with realization, Jim held up a hand. "Just don't blow the whistle on me, okay? I'm not sure the nurses would approve. They think I'm a private nurse, hired by his family."

Mac chuckled. "Your secret is safe with me," he promised. "I'm just glad someone who cares if he lives or dies is taking care of Sandburg."

"I didn't know you knew Blair," Jim observed. "Well, before you all got locked up in isolation together."

"Oh, I don't know him well, just seen him around the station and at some crime scenes, is all. But ... well, maybe I shouldn't be sayin' this, but most of us don't believe that press conference he gave. A lot of us have seen the two of you work some kind of mojo at crime scenes, an' we figure he was covering for whatever it is you guys do. You must be real proud to have a partner who'll stand by you like that, and take the heat off you, no matter what it takes."

Jim looked down the ward at his suffering partner and he wasn't sure what he felt. He'd been so arrogant to think nobody would have noticed that Blair had been helping him for years. But, clearly others understood that Blair had given up everything for him. Did they wonder what he had given Blair, or done for him, to deserve such loyalty? "Yeah," he rasped. "Believe me, I know how lucky I am."

Moving away, he returned to Blair's side to find the heat of Blair's skin had again leeched the cool moisture from the towels. His partner seemed barely conscious, all his failing energy focused on his too rapid and too shallow breathing. Through the mask that covered his face, Jim could see occasional bubbles of blood on lips that were a disturbing dusky blue. Blair's gray pallor was shockingly stark under the stubble of his heavy beard.

Jim's throat constricted and fear shuddered through him. Blair looked like he was dying.

Punching the intercom over the bed, he waited impatiently for someone to respond. When it took longer than he was prepared to wait, he pounded it again. Finally, a voice answered and he snapped sharply, "Mr. Sandburg's respirations are too rapid and shallow, he's coughing up blood, and his fever is out of control – one oh four and climbing. You'd better advise Doctor Cameron stat."

Within half an hour, Jim was advised the doctor had ordered ice packs, which Jim had already been applying with limited success. In addition, Jim started adding alcohol to the tepid bath water to increase its cooling effects. Blair's fever didn't climb any higher in the next hour, and then it dropped but not by much, to one hundred and three, where it held steady.

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

Blair felt like shit. There seemed to be a leaden weight on his chest that was pushing him into the bed and making it almost impossible to breathe. And he was so damned hot ... when he wasn't absolutely freezing. He could feel another cough building deep in his chest and he wanted to fight it, prayed it wouldn't erupt, because coughing made him feel like he was being torn apart. His ribs and gut still ached from the last bout, whenever it had been. Things were ... foggy, as if he was drifting; not quite real, except he had to be real because he felt so awful. There was something that he should be doing something about, something ... but he couldn't seem to remember. In the distance, at some point – recently? He wasn't sure – he'd heard Jim shouting at someone. Man, he hadn't sounded happy.

Jim! Shit! Jim shouldn't be anywhere near me!

Panting, Blair struggled to get a grip on the world that was whirling around him. Wincing against the light that burned his eyes, he tried to turn his head toward Jim's voice, but it suddenly weighed a ton and man, he had the headache from hell. Swallowing to moisten his bone-dry throat, he tried to speak, but he couldn't manage more than a pathetic whispered, "Jim." He wanted to move, wanted to lift his hand, God it was so frustrating to be so useless, so incapable and ... but Jim had heard him and seemed to understand. A gloved hand took his and another gently carded his hair back from his face. And then Jim was there, bending over him.

"Shh, don't try to talk, Chief."

Jim lifted the oxygen mask and brought a straw to his lips. More by reflex than thought, he sucked and nearly wept at the relief of the cool water washing down his parched throat. But then the damned cough erupted and he was choking, gasping, hacking. It hurt, God it hurt, and he couldn't ... couldn't breathe. Blood. He tasted blood. Oh, God, his lungs were losing the battle. He was losing ... losing....

Jim pulled him forward, holding him upright against his chest, trying to help him. What was Jim doing here? He shouldn't be here. Shouldn't ... but his thoughts dissolved as he struggled to catch his breath. His chest felt so heavy, so full, like there was no room for air. It was like ... it was like drowning.

Drowning.

Dying.

Fear slashed through him. Was he dying? No, please, no, no ... want to live!

"Easy, easy, you're okay," Jim was saying, wiping his mouth and placing the mask back over his face, rubbing his back, calming him ... holding him. Not letting him go. Gasping, panting for air, Blair felt the hot sting of tears and weakly clutched at Jim's gown. Please don't let me go....

After a while, feeling safe in Jim's embrace, his breathing eased a bit and his panic abated, but he still felt muddled and weak and hot, so hot. Jim settled him back against pillows that were blessedly cool against his back. Then Jim was carefully, so lightly, washing his face with a cool cloth that felt so good, and then he felt the cool touch over his arms and chest. Blair wanted to absorb that cool because he was so hot – and then he shivered violently and felt as if he was freezing. Oh, God, was there no end to the misery, no rest?

A soft blanket floated down over him and was tucked close around his shoulders, and the shivers gradually subsided. Blair wasn't sure how much time passed or even where he was or why he was there. He only knew that he had to keep breathing, but it was so hard and he was so tired. So very tired. And hot. God, why was it so damned hot?

Too much. He couldn't ... it was too hard, too hard to breathe. And it hurt so bad. So ... so tired....

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

Jim stiffened at the skip in the cadence of the drum that was beating too fast. When the harsh, rasping pant hitched, icy tendrils of fear clutched at his heart. Leaning over Blair, he gripped his friend's shoulders. "Sandburg? Blair! Can you hear me? C'mon, buddy, wake up."

"Wha'?" Blair mumbled, not quite conscious. "Tired."

"I know, but I need you to wake up," Jim urged, feeling his chest constrict when the drum skipped again. "Chief, please! Wake up!"

"Jim?" Blair murmured, sounding muddled as he blinked to open his eyes. "S'okay, don' worry."

"Worry about what, buddy?" Jim asked, and cupped Blair's cheek. God, he hated these damned gloves. He needed to touch.

Confusion flitted over Blair's face, but then his eyes cleared and Jim quailed at what he read in them. "Don't you do this," he growled, his palms around Blair's fever-flushed face, to hold his attention.

"I'm ... I think I'm dying," Blair breathed, and tears glazed his eyes. "I ... I can't –"

"NO! You listen to me, Sandburg," Jim grated. "You are not going to die. You hear me?"

Blair's gaze darkened and drifted away, and Jim knew he was losing him. "Damn it, Blair," he gusted. "Don't –"

"S'okay," Blair whispered, and his eyes began to close.

"Sandburg!" Jim called and, grabbing a shoulder, shook him. "Pay attention."

Blair jerked back into awareness, but Jim could see how hard it was for him to focus. "Blair, listen. You can't give up. It's only a few more hours and you'll be fine, just fine. You have to keep breathing. Don't quit on me now, buddy, not when we're so close."

His gaze unfathomable, Blair stared at Jim as if looking at a stranger. Unable to stand the distance between them, desperately needing the contact, Jim ripped off his gloves and again clasped Blair's face between his hands. His voice raw, he stated roughly, "I won't let you go."

Blair's enigmatic gaze held his for one breath and then another before Jim felt the barest nod of acquiescence. "Whatever it takes, you're gonna be okay, Chief," Jim promised as he reached to clasp Blair's hand. "Just hang in a little longer and it'll get better."

He felt his partner's fingers tighten weakly around his own and then loosen, as Blair's eyes drifted closed. But he continued to pant doggedly for air and, gradually, the erratic drumbeat of his heart steadied. Jim sagged, and his eyes burned with relief. For a minute there, he'd thought ... but Blair wasn't a quitter. He'd keep fighting. Taking a shaky breath, he looked up at the clock on the wall; it was nearly five A.M. He'd been there for over twelve hours and it would soon be dawn. Blair had been getting the intravenous antibiotics for nearly thirty hours.

Blair's fever hadn't yet broken, but the ice packs Cameron had ordered hours before had at least kept it from climbing any higher. Jim hung a fresh bag of intravenous fluid and prepared the next shot of antibiotics, which he injected into the port in the clear plastic tubing. Then he went to the antechamber, to get another set of ice packs from the freezer. Belatedly, he noticed he'd stripped off his gloves and, shaking his head, he washed his hands thoroughly and donned a fresh pair before touching anything else. All the while, he kept his hearing tuned to Blair's respirations and heartbeat.

The lights in the isolation chamber as well as in the hallway beyond the glass wall had been muted, and Jim was grateful that the last of the visitors had left hours before. It was like living in a fishbowl, and he hated it. He couldn't imagine what it must be like for Blair, to feel so sick and have no privacy. But, maybe, the kid was so ill that he wasn't even aware enough to be bothered by being gaped at as he fought for each breath. On his way back to Blair's bedside, he noted that Bennett and Mac were sleeping. The lawyer's fever was rising but not yet dangerous, and his lungs were beginning to sound congested; the patrolman's breathing was only modestly congested, his fever low. Jim wished Blair could have gotten off so lucky.

Sighing with fatigue, anxious, wishing the damned antibiotic would kick in and do its job, Jim placed the fresh ice packs around his partner's body and, a few minutes later when Blair shuddered with cold, Jim layered more blankets over him. With nothing else to do for the moment, he drew a chair close to the bedside, slumped into it, and reached to wrap his fingers around Blair's wrist, to hold on. Studying his partner's face, he thought about what he'd said, that he wouldn't let Blair die. Tension tightened in his gut and he felt sick with the uncertainty of not knowing whether he could deliver on that vow. Would he even be able to find that blue jungle again? Would their spirit animals give them both yet another chance? How many times did they get to blow it before it was one time too many?

Closing his eyes, Jim leaned his head back against the padded, vinyl chair, and he thought about how many times they'd screwed up in the past year – well, mostly him, but Blair had messed up, too. Why did that keep happening? Why was there this tension between them? It wasn't just because of the really bad stuff that had happened that they hadn't talked about, had just buried deep. He'd felt it before he'd gone up to Clayton Falls, felt it often over the years, but mainly in the past eighteen or so months. Like knowing something bad was going to happen, being on edge, waiting for it, but when the bad stuff did happen, not losing the feeling, not letting it go. Bad stuff, like thinking Sandburg was probably going to die in that isolation tent, and like feeling stripped bare of all his defenses, even of his humanity in the way Blair had written about him. Bad stuff like killing a vision wolf that morphed into a dead Blair and then seeing a dead Blair lying on the grass at his feet.

Oh, God. Jim's grip on his friend's wrist tightened at that memory, and he doubled forward, his jaw clamped tight against the urge to vomit. Pressure built in his chest, a nascent sob of horror and grief that he fought to stifle. More memories crowded him, merciless memories of lusting after that bitch, kissing her, wanting her – Jim shook his head, wanting to deny that it had ever happened, but he couldn't. Memories of accusing Blair of betraying him, and of Blair on the television, denouncing himself, denying the validity of his work, destroying his reputation and credibility. "Ah, Chief," Jim sighed softly, his grip loosening to slip down to cover Blair's lax fingers, "you've suffered so much, so much."

He lifted his head to watch Blair sleep, while listening to his partner's labored efforts to breathe. "If you could have anything you wanted, be anything you wanted, what would you choose?" he whispered, wondering why he'd never bothered to ask that before. Why he'd just forged ahead with Simon to make a permanent place for Sandburg at his side. Given choices, would Blair have chosen this work? Would he be lying here now, once again fighting for his life?

No, no, if he hadn't wanted the job, Blair would have said something. He wasn't some passive victim, someone who was afraid to express himself. But did he still want to be partners? Jim shook his head. Everything had happened so fast, they'd had no chance to resolve the anger Sandburg had felt. Maybe would still feel once this current crisis was over.

An hour later, Blair's fever finally broke, soaking the sheets with the sweat pouring off his skin. Jim's eyes burned and he trembled with relief even as he swiftly changed the linen and layered blankets over his partner to keep him warm. Briefly, he rested a palm on Blair's brow as he listened to his respirations and the beat of his heart. The crisis was past.

Blair was going to make it; he was going to be just fine.

Jim reported the good news over the intercom, and then slumped down onto the chair by the bedside. He supposed it was safe now for him to go home and, God knew, he was tired enough to sleep the clock around. But he thought he'd just sit there for a while ... relax a little and listen to Blair breathe. The kid's lungs were still heavily congested and Jim wanted to be certain that he didn't suffer any complications or setbacks now that the antibiotics had the deadly bacteria under control. The isolation chamber was quiet, the other patients sleeping and neither one of them were battling coughs as bad as Blair's; nor had they had a fever flare as high for as long as Sandburg did, all because his lungs were already compromised and he'd been more vulnerable. Until Blair's fever had broken, Jim had been riding on the adrenaline fed by fear but now, in the aftermath, he felt heavy with exhaustion, and his body craved sleep. The soft, snuffling snores, the muted lights, combined with Jim's weariness ...

He was just on the edge of dropping off when Blair was seized by a fierce bout of coughing, and sounded as if he was almost choking on the heavy phlegm his lungs were struggling to expel. Jim lurched to his feet and swiftly drew Blair up to rest against his chest. At first, he pounded his partner's back with cupped hands, to help loosen the phlegm and he held tissues to Blair's mouth, urging him to expectorate. Blair, bracing his body with crossed arms, hacked and gasped, and hacked some more, until he slumped, panting, against Jim's strength. Jim rubbed warm, soothing circles on his back, doing his best to help calm his partner so that Blair could get his breathing back under control. Frowning, Jim reflected on the blood that still flecked Blair's lips and that had been present in the discharge, but it was old blood, dark, not frothy and fresh, and that was reassuring.

"Easy, buddy," he murmured. After turning and plumping the pillows, he settled Blair against their support. Blair sported dark circles under his eyes, and he was still far too pale, his eyes dull, but he was more alert. His lungs were still badly congested, but they sounded better to Jim's discerning ear than they had, and Blair's heart had slowed to a more normal rate. "You're doing really good, Sandburg."

Blair met his gaze, his dark blue eyes shadowed with concern, and rasped, "You should get out of here, Jim. You shouldn't have come inside in the first place, let alone stayed so long." He paused, panting a little, to gather breath and strength. "Not that I'm not grateful but ... the risks ... it's too dangerous, man. Way too dangerous."

Jim's gaze dropped and he wrestled with finding the right words to explain why he'd had to be there. "You needed more care than the staff here could give you," he replied quietly. And that was part of it, but far from all of it. He heaved a slow breath, gripped his friend's arm and looked up into Blair's eyes. "I've let you down badly, Chief; not been there when you've most needed me too many times, especially in the past year. I ... I'm ... I won't do that again, not when it's in my power to be certain you've got what you need."

Blair's jaw tightened and he glanced away as he swallowed heavily. Then he lifted a hand to cover Jim's. Meeting Jim's eyes, his own still haunted by worry, he said hoarsely, "We've been through some tough stuff, Jim. I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for you and I won't ever forget that. Last night was rough. For awhile I thought ... I'm not sure I'd've ... you pulled me through and I know that. But I'm okay now, or I will be. You need to go home, Jim. Please, man, I want you to get out of here before you press your luck too far."

Jim brushed the errant heavy curls back off Blair's brow, and then patted his shoulder. "Okay, Chief. You win. I know the antibiotic is finally doing its job and I doubt you're even still contagious. I'll ask that they move you out of isolation as soon as possible. There're a lot of people who'd like to do more than look at you through that glass wall." He paused and then, knowing what it would mean to Blair, added, "I don't know if you remember, but Eli was here last evening, and he really wants to talk to you."

"Eli? Stoddard?" Blair squeaked, obviously astonished.

"Yeah," Jim assured him. "He feels badly about never returning your calls. He, uh, he said he was angry because you chose ... well, you chose me instead of your career. He said that he was wrong, and that he had to be more respectful of your decisions." Jim bit his lip and was almost glad of the mask that concealed his face. Stoddard wasn't the only one who had to be more respectful in the way they treated Sandburg.

Gaping at him, blinking as he assimilated the news, too tired yet, too weakened by the disease, Blair seemed almost confused, certainly distracted. Jim squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Right now, you need to rest, let your body heal."

Blair nodded, his eyelids heavy and, with a final light pat to his shoulder, Jim backed away. "I'll see you later," he said as he moved around the foot of the bed and headed toward the exit. Pausing briefly by Max's bed, Jim was pleased to note the man was sleeping deeply, the slight fever he'd exhibited earlier having already run its course. Jim walked into the antechamber and was very glad to strip off the isolation gear. When he looked back at Sandburg, he was glad to see that his friend seemed to have already slipped into sleep. For a moment, he just stood there, watching Blair sleep, and was so full of gratitude that his throat was full and his chest was tight. Blair was right – it had been a near thing during the night. If the kid hadn't kept fighting .... "Thanks, Chief," he whispered before he stepped into the hall. "Thanks for not quitting on me, for never quitting on me."

As he strode down the corridor toward the nursing station, he sorely wished that he could say the same thing about himself, but the truth was that he couldn't. He'd quit on Sandburg, and not just once, either. Grimacing, he knew there was nothing he could do about the past, but he was determined that past would never repeat itself.

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

ACT III

Blair slept for most of the next thirty-six hours, waking only when the respiratory technician arrived every two or so hours to force him to deep breathe and cough the gunk out of his lungs. Blearily, he noticed that he wasn't in the isolation chamber any longer. Coughing hurt his ribs, and he ached all over, as if he'd been lifting hundred pound weights or running up mountains, pushing himself beyond all bounds of endurance. He was vaguely aware of visitors, and sometimes managed to rouse himself enough to smile before drifting back to sleep but, other times, he thought he was probably only dreaming. Nothing seemed solid or real, and he couldn't remember when he'd last felt so utterly exhausted. Dr. Cameron was there at one point, listening to his chest with a stethoscope so cold it made him shiver, and he remembered the doctor telling him that he was definitely getting better and could probably get rid of the oxygen mask and the intravenous liquids in another day or so. Blair thought that sounded like a pretty good idea and might have said so, if he could've just stayed awake long enough.

In his half-waking moments, he tried to remember the dreams that had been plaguing him. He had the impression that he'd been running in his dreams, and maybe that's why he felt so tired despite all the hours of rest, but all he could recall were fragments, and not happy ones. Echoes of Jim's voice, telling him he couldn't be trusted. Flashes of Jesse dropping like a stone. Blinding camera lights and a deep sense of loss. Over and over, trying to breathe but unable to get any air, feeling as if he was choking ... drowning. And he was pretty sure that, for a while, he'd been back in the blue jungle, his wolf standing beside Incacha, both gazing at him with reproach in their eyes. Tangled images that left him confused and anxious. But he remembered Jim being there, caring for him, helping him, holding on, and he told himself that the dreams couldn't hurt him and he shouldn't let them scare him. And yet, he felt as if he was standing on the edge of an abyss, and if he took one wrong step, he'd lose everything that mattered to him. Caught between dreams, rarely more than half-awake, weakened by the disease and the fever that had nearly consumed him, he felt fragile and afraid, as if he didn't know who he was anymore, or where he belonged.

When he finally escaped the clutches of exhaustion very early the third day after he'd been moved out of isolation, he lay staring out the window at the lightening sky, letting his thoughts drift, and he smiled to be there to see another dawn. In truth, he felt wasted, barely strong enough to get out of bed and make it to the bathroom in the corner. But he could draw a breath without feeling as if he would choke and he knew that, every day, he'd feel better and stronger.

Physically, he'd feel better; a frown furrowed his brow and, when he rubbed his mouth, his hand rasped over rough, heavy stubble. Remembering fragments of lost time, he shook his head with fond exasperation. When he'd realized Jim was there with him, part of him had badly wanted to beat sense into the man. Dammit, he'd told Jim to stay away, to protect himself, not that Jim ever paid any attention to him if Blair's views conflicted with what Jim wanted to do. How incredibly stupid of the man to risk his health like that ... and how brave; so quintessentially Jim. But Blair knew that being so sick he could hardly talk at the time hadn't been the only reason he hadn't ripped Jim's head off. God, he'd been so scared but when he'd recognized Jim, he'd felt so relieved, so safe; and even though he'd known he was deathly ill, he'd no longer been afraid.

Blair's throat tightened. He no longer harbored any doubts that Jim genuinely cared about him. God, it meant so much to know they were family in the way close friends became to one another, and nothing was ever going to change that. But he also knew that, while the role he played in Jim's life was the foundation of Jim's concern about him, it was also the foundation of Jim's occasional resentment, because the man sorely hated to depend on anyone else for anything. And now, well, now Blair really wasn't sure how much Jim needed him. Given how often Jim had been working without his support during the months before everything went to hell, Blair strongly suspected that Jim really didn't need his specialized support any longer. He'd safeguarded Jim as well as he could since the day they'd first met. He'd made mistakes, but he'd done his best. And now, maybe, it was time to give the man his freedom and independence back, even if ... even if Blair might want to stay whether he was needed or not.

Unfortunately, he also suspected that Jim and Simon had cooked up the 'official partnership' out of friendship and a need to somehow 'rescue' him, without understanding that he didn't need rescuing – and without any belief that he'd do anything more on the job, or be anything more, than he'd been for years. Jim's shadow. Oh, sure, his academic career was trashed, for the moment, but ... but there were always choices; only Jim and Simon had never known enough about him to know that denying a thesis and losing a job wasn't the end of his world or even the end of a potential future in academia. He'd just have to apply to another school, that was all. Jim had told him it was time to move on and, except for his nagging worry about Jim's need for the right kind of backup, he'd pretty much accepted that it probably was. Blair hadn't been all that sure it was a good idea to accept Simon's offer, but he loved working with Jim and with the others in Major Crime. He was still astonished by how much fulfillment he found in law enforcement. And so, he'd stayed, not as a cop because he wasn't entirely certain Jim could manage on his own for the weeks he'd have to be away. He'd stayed as Jim's shadow.

Looking up at the patch of brightening sky he could see from his room, Blair felt as if he'd been given his life back for a second time and, once again, he had Jim to thank for still being amongst the living. After the fountain and Mexico, Blair knew he'd just muddled along, doing his best to make sense of everything that had happened and not doing a particularly good job of it. But, somehow, throughout it all, he'd just assumed that he would continue being Jim's partner, even though Jim seemed increasingly remote. Blair still didn't understand why Jim had withdrawn so far from him that they'd become uncomfortable in one another's presence, angry almost all the time with each other. The fact that they were still working together, living together, after all that tension between them had been compounded exponentially by the leak of his dissertation was either a testament to their friendship or an example of how people continued to stumble along in the same patterns long after those patterns should have changed. Because of habit or loyalty or ... whatever.

Maybe ... maybe it wasn't just about setting Jim free. Maybe it was also about getting a grip on his own life. Maybe the time had come for him to figure out what direction he was going to go in, what work he was going to commit to. For four years, his life had revolved around Jim. Maybe it was time that he set himself free.

Blair grimaced and closed his eyes, wishing that all these ruminations made him feel better, more hopeful, even excited about the possibilities life could hold. What had happened to the guy who had found life exciting, endlessly fascinating ... the guy who used to feel happy damn near all the time? What had happened to him? Where had he gone? And was he gone for good? Sighing, Blair sincerely hoped not. He missed the person he used to be.

God, he was getting maudlin; no doubt, he told himself, because he'd been so sick and was still weak and emotionally vulnerable. Snorting, he shoved aside the blankets covering him and pushed himself upright and onto his feet. His hair, lank and greasy, was driving him crazy, his beard itched and, wrinkling his nose, he could smell the sourness of illness that still clung to him. He needed to shower and shave; and, feeling hollow, he knew he was ready for some solid food. After he'd cleaned up and eaten, he was sure he'd feel more human and hopeful about what his future might hold. After all, despite the questions and uncertainties that still tormented him, there were things he could, and did, feel really good about. He was alive; he'd beaten the fearsome pneumonic plague and the relief of that was very nearly euphoric. Though he'd doubted it only days before, he now believed his friendship with Jim was solid and would continue, however the future unfolded, and that meant so much to him that he was bemused to realize even he couldn't find words to express the emotion that welled inside and warmed his soul. And ... and regardless of whether he and Jim continued as partners, Blair knew he had a chance of making it in law enforcement, that he wasn't the pariah he'd assumed he was; a chance to make a personal difference for the good in people's lives and impact on the health of the community he served.

Assumptions. God, he'd made so many decisions – and hadn't made other choices – based only on assumptions. Walking slowly into the bathroom, one hand on the wall for support, Blair muttered, "I know better. I'm a trained researcher and scientist. Only an ass accepts assumptions as truth. It's time to get the facts." He snickered and growled, "Just the facts, ma'am." Giggling as he twisted on the faucets in the shower, he muttered, "Oh, man, I sound more and more like a cop all the time."

Stepping under the hot spray, he closed his eyes and moaned softly in pleasure. Leaning a shoulder against the tiled wall in deference to his pervasive weakness, he slowly soaped and rinsed his body, and then washed his hair. When he was finished, he stood for a long moment under the spray, both enjoying it and gathering his strength to dry off and shave. Trembling, he realized that he was pushing his limits but it felt so good to be clean that he couldn't bring himself to be sorry. Taking a breath to strengthen his resolve to finish his ablutions while he could still stand, he shut off the water. Shivering now in the cooler air, he dried off and, a towel rapped around his hair, he shaved as quickly as he could with a hand that shook with weakness.

By the time he staggered back to his bed, he was worn out but in a good way, and he slid swiftly into a truly restful, healing sleep.

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

"Hey, buddy, you're looking a lot better," Jim exclaimed as he entered the room the next day. "I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to wake up." He grinned with honest relief, and playfully wiggled Blair's foot under the blanket before dropping into a chair by the side of the bed.

"Yeah," Blair agreed with a smile, raking his hair back. "I think I've finally turned the corner – maybe they'll let me go home soon?" he added hopefully.

"So long as you're eating and can get to the bathroom on your own, I don't see why not," Jim replied, frowning as he took in the details of Blair's physical condition. His partner was obviously much better and well on the way to full recovery, but the strain of the illness showed in too-prominent bones and shadows deep in Blair's eyes. "You look like you're wasting away."

"Oh, don't worry, man, I'm eating," Blair assured him, shifting to sit up straighter in the bed. "Could have managed two breakfasts, but I guess they want to make sure I keep it down. How are the others doing? I've kinda lost track ...."

"Mac is out of isolation, but the lawyer is still there – it's iffy as to whether he's going to make it. Mac's partner, Kinsey, and Rafe have gone in, but they seem to be doing okay. H is still waiting to see if he's infected and is bored out of his mind; says he feels like he should start charging admission to people who stroll by to gawk at him. Eighteen people from the community were admitted for observation and seven of those have been moved into isolation – waitresses and barmaids, a prostitute, the maid from their motel – but most of them are people who have colds and are worried they might have passed the Chavez brothers in the street and gotten infected. Three lowlife street hustlers have also been admitted straight to isolation. They don't want to admit they were working with the brothers, but we nailed two of them with fingerprints taken from the armory crates; they aren't doing too well and it looks like they may have waited too long to come in. One guy was found dead in an abandoned warehouse near where they were storing the weapons, and according to the autopsy, it was the plague. The Public Health officials seem to think we got off lucky with only three deaths, at least so far."

Blair's mouth twisted and he shook his head, but he didn't say anything.

"Has Cameron been in to see you today?" Jim asked.

"Not yet, but I'm expecting him later," Blair said.

"Okay, good," Jim noted, hoping his partner would get approval to go home, if not that day then the next morning. He missed having Sandburg around, and he knew the kid would rest better at home than he could in a busy and noisy hospital. "So, you want to play some cards?"

"Sure," Blair agreed, and pushed the controls to raise the head of the bed.

Jim wheeled the overbed table into place and retrieved the deck of cards he'd stashed in the bedside table. As he shuffled and dealt out the hand, he wondered if Blair would say anything about him going into the isolation chamber ... or if he'd talk about anything else that had been concerning them before the plague had pushed all lesser matters aside. But Blair just picked up his cards and studied them.

On the one hand, Jim was relieved and reassured by Blair's broad and genuine smile of greeting, and how eager Blair was to go home.

On the other, Jim also felt as if he was waiting for a very heavy shoe to drop. His partner was too quiet. Sandburg hadn't asked him how he was doing, hadn't checked to make sure he wasn't getting sick, hadn't asked about his senses and if everything was alright.

If he'd harbored a hope that the problems between them would disappear in the face of much more deadly concerns, he feared it had been in vain. Anger curled in his gut – hadn't risking his own life by going into isolation to ensure Blair was well cared for been enough to prove himself? What the hell did Sandburg want from him? What more could he do to show he regretted the rift between them?

But, disgusted with himself, with his propensity to lurch into anger whenever he was frustrated or felt inadequate, he quashed the brief flare of emotion. He hadn't gone into that chamber to prove something to Sandburg, and he sure in hell hadn't gone in because he wanted Blair to owe him something. He'd gone in because there was no way he could have remained outside while Blair was in deadly danger. If Blair still held ill feelings toward him, the kid was entitled because nothing had been resolved, not really – just put on hold. They still had to talk, had to clear the air between them. They had to sort out where they stood with one another. Jim chewed on his lip as he examined his cards, not really seeing them. There was no point in trying to discuss anything important in the hospital, where anyone could walk in on them at any time. He had to get Blair home. Jim grimaced at the irony of it all. For four years, Blair had encouraged him to talk, urged him, even occasionally begged him, but he hadn't wanted to get mired in the past or in trawling through old feelings that shouldn't have relevance to his life. Now, he'd wanted to talk to Blair for a week, but there never seemed to be a chance. It was frustrating.

"Rotten cards?" Blair asked, his tone of amusement cutting into Jim's thoughts.

"The cards are fine," he muttered, but it was hopeless; he couldn't concentrate on a meaningless game. Folding the cards together, he decided he had to say something, had to try to repair the rift that was still there despite all that had happened since. But he'd just opened his mouth when Eli Stoddard poked his head around the half-open door. "Figures," Jim huffed to himself, and tossed his hand onto the table. "Come on in," he offered as he stood and waved to the chair he'd just vacated. "I'll go get us some decent coffee."

"Eli," Blair gasped in astonishment. "What are you doing here?"

Dr. Stoddard shot a hard look at Jim, who lifted both hands defensively. "Hey, I told him you were here," Jim protested. "I even told him why, but he was pretty sick at the time. I'm not surprised he doesn't remember."

"What are you talking about?" Blair demanded, looking from one to the other. "You were here before? When?"

"Several times," Eli told him as he moved into the room. "I must say it's good to see you looking so much better, my boy."

Jim stiffened at the possessive, intimate term but, knowing how much the man's visit would mean to Blair, he inhaled deeply, swallowed his antagonism, and edged back to the door. "Like I said," he interjected, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the hallway, "I'll go scare up some decent coffee."

When Blair just nodded, a smile spreading across his face as he gazed in wonder at Eli Stoddard, and the professor acted as if he was already gone, Jim rolled his eyes and headed into the corridor. He was sorely tempted to lurk in the nearby stairwell and listen in – he was damned near positive that Stoddard hadn't thrown in the towel and probably had some scheme worked out that would allow Sandburg to return to the rarefied world of Rainier. He hesitated, debating the violation of Blair's privacy. After all, there were implications for his life and future, too, if Sandburg decided he'd had enough. Then he ground his teeth in frustration, willfully turning down his hearing as he strode quickly down the hall, and slid into the elevator just before it closed.

As badly as he wanted to know, and Blair might not even care if he 'overheard' the conversation with Stoddard, Jim decided that his partner deserved to have some privacy, especially now when Jim was concerned that things might still be fragile between them. Determined not to jump to conclusions, he tried to put a lid on his anxious uncertainty and told himself that Blair would let him know if there was anything he needed to worry about. He just wished ... hell, he wished that everything wasn't all happening at once: his stupid, ill-considered 'test' that had so enraged – and hurt – his partner; the kid catching a disease that damned near killed him during his first official bust; and Stoddard, showing up now, no doubt to do his best to entice Blair back to the dreams he'd worked toward for half his life. Beating off his desire to hurry back to Blair's room, Jim went to the new coffee bar in the lobby and then, encumbered only with a cup for himself, he went outside to get some air and give Blair and Stoddard time to talk without interruption or observation.

Leaning a shoulder against a concrete pillar on the edge of the covered entrance, Jim gazed up at the overcast sky. Much as he wanted to hope that things weren't as bad as he feared between him and Blair, deep down, he ached with sorrow that after four years, he had no clue what Sandburg was thinking, no idea what Blair most wanted in his life. How could he have taken Sandburg so much for granted? Biting his lip, he found the question uncomfortably easy to answer. Because everything had worked out to suit him. Because he'd gotten what he wanted. Because it was easier to put all the crap over the dissertation and Alex Barnes into a box and stuff it in the furthest corner of his mind than it would be to hash it all out ... why bother, when things had worked out and Sandburg was his official partner? Questioning it, even talking about it, felt too much like looking a gift horse in the mouth, like it might jinx a good thing.

Dejectedly, he decided it would serve him right if Blair decided that he'd had enough, and he spent a number of morose moments contemplating a bleak future while he drank the rest of his coffee. Still, it wasn't in his nature to give up. He'd meant it when he'd told Blair that he was the best partner and the best friend Jim had ever had, and he didn't intend to let the most important relationship in his life slip through his fingers without doing his best to fix what was wrong. Determination stiffening his spine, he went back inside to obtain the coffee for Blair and Stoddard that he'd promised them.

However, when he got back upstairs, he found Blair alone, staring bemusedly into space. "Where's the professor?" he asked, looking around as if the man might be hiding behind the door, waiting to blindside him.

"Uh, he's gone," Blair replied, sounding distant, but then he looked at Jim and his eyes lit up at the sight of the coffee cups. "Oh, man, do I need some of the good stuff," he nearly moaned in pleasure as he reached out to relieve Jim of one of the cups. "Thanks."

"Careful, it's still hot," Jim cautioned and settled back into the chair beside the bed. "So ... you had a good visit?" he ventured lamely, hating himself for being so needy, but he had to know what Stoddard had said.

"Yeah," Blair replied, and he looked so damned happy that Jim just knew he was in trouble. "He ... he apologized for not taking any of my calls back when, well, you know." A trace of regret flickered across his face. "I always thought I understood why but ...." And then, like a switch had been thrown, the light in his face went out and he lifted wide, dark eyes to Jim. "I ... I'm sorry, man. He's figured out ... he –"

"I know," Jim cut in, but gently. There'd already been more than enough anger and recrimination and hurt over the damned secret to last a lifetime, and he was just so tired of it all. "He told me the other night. Said he'd figured it out a long time ago." Jim shifted uncomfortably in the chair, and his gaze fell away. "He knows – and probably everyone else at Rainier who can put two and two together also has a pretty good idea of what's really true – and you said H and Rafe told you the whole PD knows. I'm sorry, Chief; you must feel like you sacrificed your whole life for nothing."

"Hardly," Blair retorted. "Rainier wasn't my whole life. And not for nothing, man; the bad guys don't know and the media believed me. They're the ones that I wanted to convince, Jim – the ones that pose a threat, that could cost you your life if they knew the truth."

His gaze still downcast, wishing that no one knew but grateful, so very grateful for what Blair had done for him, Jim nodded slowly. He'd heard anger in his partner's voice, when he denied Rainier had been his whole life, and Jim was trying to decide whether it was a case of protesting too much, and that Blair did regret his grand gesture, or that he'd screwed up again, failing to understand what really mattered in his partner's life. God, he was so tired of feeling like he was walking on thin ice. Steeling himself for an answer he didn't want to hear, he asked, "So, the professor just wanted to clear the air? I know he was pretty upset the other night when he was scared you might not make it. I, uh, I got the impression he'd like to get you back."

When Blair didn't answer, Jim dragged his gaze up to meet his partner's, and found Blair studying him, his expression giving nothing away. "Eli did say he was sure I could return as a doctoral candidate to work on a different thesis topic. He said that since the paper had never been officially submitted that Rainier was on shaky ground expelling me when the school could be said to have aided and abetted the illegal dissemination of my work. And he said that there'd be a case for unlawful dismissal, too, so I could probably get another teaching fellow position. According to Eli, it's just a matter of negotiation, if I want to go back."

Jim felt as though he was floundering in deep water, far from the sight of land. He wanted to be glad for Blair, he really did; and he knew he should feel relieved, that keeping his secret might not have cost Blair everything after all. But all he could think about was how much he didn't want to lose the best partner he'd ever had, the best friend he'd ever had. His throat was tight, and he knew his voice sounded thin and strained as he asked, "Is it? Is it what you want?"

Blair looked away and shrugged. "It's nice to have options, I guess," he finally said. "I don't know. I need to think about it."

Before Jim could say anything else, Dr. Cameron walked in, all bluff and cheerful, filling the room with his presence. Blair brightened again and asked if he could go home. They wrangled back and forth, while Cameron scanned Blair's chart and listened to his lungs, muttering to himself about there being no trace of fever, and food and fluid intake being good.

"I'm feeling a lot better," Blair insisted when the specialist seemed to be wavering in his view that Sandburg really should stay another night. "And I can rest better at home."

"Well," Cameron temporized as he stood back and looked from one man to the other. "You're not entirely out of danger yet, Blair; you need to accept that. If you do go home, you need to rest and take it easy for a couple weeks. Is there someone there who can take care of you – do the cooking, shopping, so you can just rest?"

"Blair and I share a place, and I can take care of things," Jim interjected. "And I can keep a watch for any problems, like fever or coughing that might signal pneumonia."

Cameron eyed him, and Jim knew the doctor had recognized him in the isolation chamber – and no doubt speculated about his relationship with Sandburg. Well, he could get in line. People had been speculating about them since they'd hooked up together. "No exertion of any kind," the specialist insisted. "He's still very weak and far from well."

"I know," Jim returned, solid and solemn. Knowing that Blair hated being discussed as if he were invisible, he turned to his partner. "What do you say, Sandburg? You willing to promise to take it easy for as long as it takes to let your lungs recover?"

"Yeah, yeah, for sure, I promise," Blair assured the two of them. "Trust me, I so do not like feeling like I can't breathe."

"Okay, then, I'll sign the release," Cameron allowed, and Blair beamed at him.

Jim was a bit surprised to realize he was beaming, too.

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

Blair really had felt one thousand percent better when he'd persuaded Cameron to discharge him, but by the time he'd shaved and dressed, he was exhausted and nearly panting for breath. Jim mutely stepped behind him to give his shoulders a gentle massage while he sat slumped in the chair. His friend's ministrations felt so soothing that he very nearly fell asleep.

"You sure you're ready to go home?" Jim asked quietly and dropped to one knee to look Blair in the eye.

Well aware that Jim was doing a thorough scan, so far as his senses would allow, Blair nodded. "Yeah, I am. I know I'm still pretty weak and I've got like NO energy, let alone stamina, but I really will rest better at home. You don't mind, do you?"

A small smile played over Jim's mouth, and he cupped Blair's head as he shook his own. "No, I don't mind. I'll feel better with you at home."

Before Blair could respond to that, Jim straightened with fluid ease and left the room to let the nurses know they were ready to go. Leaning his head back against the chair, Blair basked in the warmth of Jim's assurance and thought again about how much he valued the man, and not just because he was a sentinel.

The next thing he knew, Jim was lightly shaking his shoulder and calling his name. "Oh, man, guess I dropped off," he apologized.

"No problem," Jim murmured, and hooked a strong hand under his arm to help him stand, and then eased him down into the wheelchair, as if he was as fragile and precious as ancient porcelain.

When they got outside, Jim was just as gentle and careful in getting him settled in the truck, and Blair briefly gripped his arm before he could withdraw after attaching the seatbelt for him. "Thanks, man. I really do appreciate everything."

Jim looked briefly startled, like a deer in the headlights, but then he relaxed and his smile revealed such sweetness and vulnerability that Blair felt his heart twist at what he'd been putting this guy through. "You don't need to thank me, Chief," he said, and drew back. Just before he closed the door, he added, "It's what friends – partners – do for one another."

Blair inhaled deeply and, fighting the urge to cough, blew out slowly. When Jim was like this, there was no one more kind or generous, and he felt like an ogre for having been so deeply angry with the man before he'd gotten sick. So angry that Jim was very obviously still uncertain around him. The guy was doing his best, doing everything he could, including putting his own health at risk when Blair was in isolation, to show that their partnership mattered to him, mattered a great deal. Jim wasn't inarticulate, but he didn't trust words; his actions were always more expressive, especially of those thoughts and emotions that were softer, deeply personal, and left him feeling vulnerable. Blair knew all that. Hard not to know it after observing the man for four years.

But there had been reasons for his anger, for the depth and virulence of it, and Blair didn't think he could afford to just write it off. Gazing out the side window at the passing streets, deeply grateful to be there, to be able to see the world around him, he struggled to define exactly what was at the core of his anger....

"Hey, Chief, you with me?" Jim called, sounding a long distance away.

"Huh?" Blair muttered and yawned. Blinking, looking around, he realized he'd again fallen asleep and they'd arrived. "Oh, sorry," he apologized and shifted to get out of the truck. "I can't seem to stay awake."

"Don't worry about it," Jim reassured him, putting a supportive arm around his back to help him into the building. "Sleep is the best thing for you right now. Sleep and lots of fluids and food, so your body can heal itself."

When they got to the loft, Jim guided him to the sofa. "I want to get some food into you before you go back to bed, so just take it easy here until I get lunch ready, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, that's fine," Blair replied, and toed off his sneakers. He curled on his side and Jim dropped the afghan over him. There was something indefinable but infinitely comforting about being home. The familiar scents, maybe, or the ambiance of color and form in the furniture. The light streaming in through the balcony windows, soft and warm and....

"Ah, geez, this is getting ridiculous!" Blair whined, humiliated when Jim had to wake him for the third time that morning. Jim just grinned at him and helped him to the table where he found his favorite comfort food: creamy tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches and a steaming cup of tea; easily digestible and nourishing and a wonderful combination of flavors to tempt even the most reluctant of appetites. "Mmm, this looks so good," he sighed as he sank into his chair and reached for the mug of soup with one hand and half a sandwich with the other.

Jim's grin widened as he took his own place at the table. "After lunch, I think you might want to nap for awhile."

Blair laughed and nodded. "Yeah, that sounds about right," he agreed, his embarrassment about being unable to stay awake slipping away under Jim's gentle teasing and evident pleasure in having him home. He took a sip of the soup and then a bite of the sandwich, and couldn't help but moan softly in pleasure; hospital food never, ever tasted this good. Not even close. "God, it's great to be home."

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

Gradually, over the next week, Blair started to stay awake for more time than he was asleep. Jim returned to work but, when he was home, he reminded Blair to do his deep breathing and coughing exercises, cooked, and went for short walks up and down the block with him, so he could get some fresh air and exercise. Though he started to feel stronger, Blair still found himself dropping off in the middle of the day, and he was worn out at the end of each stroll around the neighborhood.

He told himself not to get discouraged or be impatient with the slow pace of his recovery, that he was getting better and it would just take a little time. Wryly, he thought about how hard he'd pushed himself for years, and he figured his body had just decided to get back at him by refusing to bounce back the way it used to. Naomi would tell him he was paying a karmic debt to his body, and maybe he was. It was probably just as well he couldn't dive right back into work, anyway, because he really wasn't sure he'd be able to restrain himself from automatically helping Jim with his senses. It was hard enough to not ask about them or if Jim was having any problems when he got home after work.

Very hard not to worry about Jim being out there on the streets without him.

When he was awake, and alone in the loft, he thought long and hard about his life, about what he wanted – and needed. It had taken him days to figure out what was really wrong, what he was missing, to narrow it down to something concrete with examples, and to convince himself that it wasn't all just in his head, that he wasn't expecting too much. And then he spent a lot of time thinking about how to explain to Jim why some things had to change, and why ... why he thought he probably needed to work somewhere else, at least for a while. Providing, of course, that his 'no test test' indicated that Jim really didn't need his specialized backup anymore. If it turned out, though, that Jim still needed him, well, then, he wouldn't be going anywhere; but some things still really needed to change. He wondered if they would – or could – change if he stayed.

Standing by the balcony doors, looking out at the water, Blair stuffed his hands into his jeans. Not so long ago, he'd thought he might have lost everything that mattered most to him. Hell, not so long before that, he'd been murdered and had lost everything, period. Amazingly, after his press conference, for a little while, he'd thought it might work out. Then he'd agreed to that stupid test, and Jim had shown him just how very much he hated the tests, and how much he deeply resented what Blair put him through on a regular basis. Okay, so he'd known the tests irritated Jim, and he knew the man hated to be treated like a lab rat, but he'd thought Jim had understood why the tests were necessary, that they weren't about power or about humiliation or about hurting him or about....

"Ah, dammit," Blair sighed in despair, and swiped his fingers over his eyes. They'd grown to be great friends, sure, but underneath it all, Jim evidently saw his role in Jim's life – their much vaunted 'partnership' – as not much more than a necessary but resented evil.

A necessary but resented evil.

Sure wasn't much of a role to build a career, a life, upon.

Blair thought that it had taken him longer than it should have to realize it really wasn't enough.

When he heard the familiar tread out in the hall, and the scrape of the key in the loft, he knew he was ready to talk to Jim, and that it was time.

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

Jim was tired. Aside from the little time he'd taken off when his eyes had been injured more than a week and a half before, he hadn't had a break. With Rafe, Brown and Sandburg still off on sick leave, they were seriously shorthanded at work. Much of his time had been taken up with sorting out the case that he and Blair had started; the Chavez brothers were dead, and so were the hustlers who'd been working with them, but forms and reports still had to be completed. Fortunately, no other major cases had hit the Unit in the last week, but Jim would have welcomed a break from paper-chasing that would have allowed him to be on the streets. While Blair had been in hospital, he'd barely slept until he was sure that his partner was out of danger. Since getting Blair home, he'd slept a little better, but woke often after disturbing dreams he couldn't remember. Jim knew his concerns about what was going on between him and Sandburg were weighing on him, but he'd held off on the conversation they needed to have because it didn't take a genius to see Blair hadn't been up to it. When they did talk, he didn't want the kid falling asleep in the middle of it.

Jim had known before he'd hit the third floor exactly where Sandburg was in the loft, and he was pleased Blair was awake. He'd been missing the guy's company. So he was smiling when he pushed the door open and stepped inside, his gaze going to Blair who was standing by the balcony door. But his smile faltered at the somber expression on Blair's face, and at the tense way Blair was standing, his feet well spaced, his arms hanging at his side, like he was ready for anything. Pushing the door shut, he called softly, "Hey, you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm good," Blair replied. He seemed to be about to say something more, but didn't.

Jim quirked a brow but didn't challenge the statement despite the fact that Sandburg was so tense he was very nearly vibrating. Dog tired, Jim considered heading straight to his room, to hold off whatever Blair looked like he wanted to say until he felt more ready to hear it. But this conversation had been coming for a long time and he needed – they both needed – to get on with it. Tossing his keys into the basket and continuing into the kitchen, he got himself a beer. "You want anything to drink?" he asked, knowing Sandburg was confined to non-alcoholic beverages until he finished the meds he was on to stave off opportunistic infection.

"Uh, yeah, some juice would be good," Blair agreed, and finally moved into the living room, taking his usual place on the sofa. "I thought we could order in tonight ... Thai, maybe?"

"Sounds good," Jim returned as he filled a glass with cranapple juice. He waited, but knew by now there'd be no questions about work or about his senses. It bugged him because it felt as Blair no longer cared about the job ... or about him. He knew that wasn't fair, but the strain of not knowing what Sandburg was thinking was getting to him. Turning with the glass and his beer to walk into the living room, he said, "Chief, I think we need –"

"To talk," Blair interjected with a ghost of a smile as he reached for the glass. "Thanks, man," he murmured before taking a sip, while Jim got himself settled in his chair. "And thanks for waiting until I was ready."

Jim's mouth was suddenly dry, and he took a healthy gulp from the beer bottle. The flavor burst on his tongue and he blinked. God, he was so tired that his dials were slipping. Anxiety fluttered in his gut. He wanted this, needed to clear the air between them. But he was scared about what he might hear. "I'd like to start," he said. When Blair just looked at him and nodded, Jim found he wasn't sure where to begin, despite having thought of little else since they'd spent the night on that damned mountain. "Uh, okay, well ... things haven't been good since I screwed up with that stupid test, and I'm sorry about that."

"You're sorry about things not being good or about the test?" Blair asked, a hard edge in his tone.

"Both. Chief, I never meant to ... I told myself that it would help you, and I believed that, even though I know I was also getting a bit of my own back. I know you were mad; I've never seen you like that before, too angry to talk. But I don't really understand why ... why we can't get past it. And I don't understand why you're ignoring my senses. You never ask me how I'm doing – you didn't help me that day before, well, before everything went to hell."

Before Blair could answer, he hurried on, "I don't know what it means, Chief, and it's been driving me nuts, you know? I don't know if you're telling me you don't care anymore or if you don't want to work with me anymore. I have no clue what you want and, and that bothers me ... and shames me. There's too much I don't know about you. Too damned much I took for granted. And, and I'm sorrier about that than you'll ever know. I guess I just want to say that I hope I haven't messed up so bad that, that I can't ever make it right. You've taken a lot of crap from me over the past year and ...." His throat tightened and he was afraid his voice was about to crack. Holding up a hand to buy time, he cleared his throat and said hoarsely, "I ... I want you to be my partner. But if that's not what you want, whatever you do want, whatever you need, I'll back you."

Jim saw Blair's eyes glaze before his friend blinked and looked away, swallowing convulsively. Blair sniffed and took a deep breath. "Oh, man," Blair breathed. He swallowed hard again, and then met Jim's gaze with his own. "Don't ever think I don't care about you or about your senses, okay? If there's one thing I'm very clear on it's how really glad I am that we're okay – we are okay – as friends. Family. Nothing's ever going to change that. At least, I hope nothing ever will."

Jim nodded, and felt a measure of relief, but he also felt a chill of foreboding. If Blair was talking about their friendship not changing, then ... what was going to change?

When he didn't say anything, Blair got up and began to pace restlessly. "I told you that I was giving you a 'no test' test. I need to know whether or not you need help with your senses anymore. We assume you do, or I've made that assumption, but we don't know, not for sure. You've got great control now. I don't think you need me to walk you through crime scenes or remind you to adjust dials, or to ground or piggyback one sense with another. I think you've got all that nailed. But we need to be sure because your life depends on it."

"And if I do need you ..." Jim asked, feeling hopeless dread creep over him. Sandburg wanted out. God damn it to hell.

"Then you've got me," Blair said, his tone firm. But his gaze slid away and he heaved a sigh. Not good signs.

"But that isn't what you want, is it?" Jim knew he sounded broken and defeated, but he owed Blair honesty and not his first, fiercely defensive reaction. He'd come too close to growling that he didn't need a hostage before he'd bitten back the words.

"I ... Jim, I love working with you," Blair gusted, and thrust his fingers through his hair in agitation. "But..."

"But?" Here it comes, Jim thought, and tried not to stiffen.

Blair stared at him, and then turned away to pace to the window, where he looked out into the darkening night. "But you don't respect me and neither does Simon," he said quietly, and Jim saw him brace himself, as if expecting an explosion.

"That's not true," Jim stated flatly. "Why do you think that –"

"To make sure you've got the backup you need," Blair cut in, the words clipped. "And maybe because you both felt guilty or thought I needed rescuing." He blew a long breath, obviously struggling to stay calm, and turned back to Jim. "I'm grateful, I am. But none of those reasons have anything to do with my qualifications, with what I can offer as an individual. And none of those reasons supposes that I'm a man capable of taking care of myself, of figuring out what to do next."

Jim could feel his jaw tightening as he fought the urge to yell that Sandburg was being stupid. "Chief," he tried, "okay, so yes, being my partner is partly about giving me backup on the senses. But you're also good at the job. Itold you that you're the best –"

"Do you even know that better than half the time you tune me out? Do you notice that Simon looks at you when he decides I've been talking too long with an expression that says you need to pull my leash? That's when he's not waving me off, or talking over me, or just basically ignoring whatever I've been saying. You think other people don't see that? Don't see you cut me off and stride away while I'm talking? Or hitting me on the side of the head like I'm ten years old, and telling me to pay attention?"

Blair's voice had risen, and he stopped, gasping a little to catch his breath. He lifted his hands, patting the air as if to calm everything down. "And besides all that, I'm not qualified. Simon had to supervise my interrogation because you weren't there to do it. I don't have the authority to make an arrest. I will only, ever, be qualified to be your shadow, your sidekick. And what happens when you decide it's time to go for a promotion and you take a desk job? Huh? Where am I then?"

Jim frowned and he chewed his lip as he thought about what Blair had said. He wished he could deny it, could say the man was wrong, but he wasn't. "Chief, I don't know what to say. But I can tell you this – you are more than some sidekick. You've been a lot of help over the last four years, and Simon knows that as well as I do."

Blair nodded tightly. "Okay, okay, I'm not going to argue about what you think because I can't get inside your head to know for sure, and I really don't think you'd lie to me. But ... but Jim, you guys have habitual behaviors in how you treat me, and I don't see those changing anytime soon. And others will take their cues from you and Simon."

"Okay, so we'll change those behaviors," Jim retorted, and found himself on his feet. "I'll talk to Simon –"

"No, you won't. I'm not a child you have to speak for, Jim; I'm capable of talking to Simon myself about this. But habits are just that – habits. I don't think you'll find changing them as easy as you think," Blair returned. He sighed. "And even if you do, I won't be much more than a sidekick. Not really. That's my job now, my career: Jim's sidekick. Maybe that should be enough but – especially if you don't really need me – it's not. And even if you do need me, you hate your senses and you resent it when I make you work on them. I really don't know if I'm up for another twenty or so years of fighting to get you to accept yourself or my role in ensuring you're as good as you can be and need to be to stay alive."

"What are you saying, Sandburg? That you want to take Stoddard up on his offer?" Jim was pushing, he knew it, but he had to know. And he told himself again that if it was, he'd support Blair's decision. But the breath was tight in his chest, and acid burned in his belly. I don't really hate the senses ... do I? Do I really make it that hard for him?

To his surprise, Blair gave him a bemused half-smile and shook his head. "No, no that's not what I want, at least not as a career choice, though finishing the doctorate would be good," he said, and Jim felt almost sick with relief. The smile grew, and Jim heard laughter in his voice when he added, "Believe it or not, I want to be a cop."

Jim knew he was gaping at Blair, but he was damned if he could see what the problem was. Blair had said he liked working with him, and now he was saying he wanted to be a cop, would choose that given the choice that he now had ... so what the hell was the problem? He didn't realize he'd shouted out his frustrated thoughts until Blair took a step back and his partner's expression hardened.

"See? You don't listen to me! Or if you do, you don't hear what I say!" Blair slammed back. "The problem is I can't take the time to go to the Academy if you need me with you to help manage your senses – I will not risk your life. So being your shadow is maybe all I'll ever be and I have to learn how to live with that, when I know – I know – I have a lot to contribute but it won't matter because I won't have the credentials. The problem is that you don't respect me, at least not overtly; it's like you and Simon look at me and still see that wet-behind-the-ears grad student who didn't have a clue and who never, ever stopped babbling because he was so god-damned scared he was going to screw up!" Blair stopped cold, as if realizing he was shouting and very close to babbling like that scared kid he'd been ... which gave Jim some insight into how very scared he might well be now. Why was he scared? He held all the cards.

But Blair had started talking again, more slowly, his tone modulated to one of weary reason. "Lack of respect is like an acid, it erodes everything it touches. So even if it's just habitual behavior at this point, it hurts me, hurts my credibility, and it's really annoying." He heaved another deep sigh. "That's one of the reasons that if we find out that you don't need me, and I can get my own badge, I don't know if we can keep working together. The other reason is that you hate the senses and I'm tired of making you jump through hoops that you resent. Because you resent me, then, too." When Jim was about to interrupt, to deny it, Blair charged, "You know you resent me when I insist on testing you. That's why you wanted to get even, why you made me climb that damned cliff. And, dammit Jim, I do not want to be someone you resent."

Stunned to realize that he really was the problem, that his behaviors really might cost him the best partner he'd ever have, Jim stared at Blair and wondered how the hell he was going to fix this mess of his own creation. Belatedly remembering the bottle of beer he was clutching in his hand, Jim took a deep swallow, more to buy time to figure out what the hell to say, than because he wanted it. "Okay," he rasped. "Okay." Lifting his hands, he began to prowl across the living room floor. One problem at a time. "Let me see if I've got this all straight. You want to go to the Academy but you don't know if it's safe to leave me on my own that long. If you don't go to the Academy, you won't be able to contribute to the best of your ability."

He thought about that, thought about how hard Blair worked and how seriously he took his responsibilities. The man had run himself ragged for four years to do his best both at Rainier and in the support he gave Jim. Blair had been on the verge of obtaining a PhD, and could have made millions on the work he'd produced. Could have been a world-class authority, respected as a giant in his field, and he'd given it all up. But achievement, contribution, were still important to him, still part of how he defined himself. As did most men. Jim knew he could never be satisfied simply following in another's shadow, constrained to be less than he could be, to do less, to make less of a difference than was possible. He turned to face Blair. "Okay. One thing's pretty clear here. You need to go to the Academy – whether or not I need your backup, you need to go."

"But I can't if –"

"Yes, you can," Jim insisted. "Look, we'll figure it out, okay? Maybe somebody else tag teams with me while you're gone. Won't be the same but ... but partners are equals, Chief. If I'd known you wanted the badge, we could have figured this out before now. When you turned it down, I just thought that you didn't want it, maybe because of the weapons ... but if you want to go, we'll make that happen."

"Maybe somebody else tag teams you?" Blair echoed. "Jim, you have to have a partner who understands what's going on with you. What if you had a spike or ... or zoned? You cannot work alone. Not anymore. Not unless you turn the senses off."

Talking to Sandburg was like trying to hold water in his hand. He just thought he had a grip on the subject and it changed, morphed into something else. And they were back to his senses. The damned senses that had already cost too damned much. "You've always said that I couldn't, or shouldn't, turn them off. That they're a part of me."

Blair narrowed his eyes, his expression so sad and so weary that Jim felt his heart ache in response. The kid had always believed in him, had worked so hard to help him be what he was, tried so hard to convince him he wasn't some kind of freak, and all he ever did was wish .... "I didn't say I wanted to turn them off," he said, and knew he sounded defensive.

"But you do, don't you?" Blair pushed. Very softly, he added, "Incacha said that a sentinel would be a sentinel as long as he chose to be."

"I ..." Jim began, but floundered to a halt. Shaking his head, he admitted, "I don't know. Sometimes, yeah, I wish to hell I hadn't been born with them. But, but they help, Chief. You know it as well as I do – I really am 'an organic crime lab'. I think I'd miss them if they were gone."

Blair didn't say anything for a long moment, just stood there and looked at him. "You need to decide, Jim," he finally replied. "Are you a sentinel or not? Do you want the heightened senses, with all that that entails, or not.? Is the edge they give you worth the aggravation and the very real danger they can be?"

Jim's gaze dropped away and he rubbed his mouth. Nodding to himself, he knew Blair was right. He had to decide to either own the senses and stop bitching about them, or let them go and live with being less than he was now. If he could let them go; he wasn't as sure as Blair seemed to be that it was a simple matter of choice.

Blair crossed the space between them, and lightly gripped his arm. "You need some time; this isn't something you can just decide on a dime. If you ever want to talk about it, bounce around the pros and cons, I'm here. But I won't raise the subject. I won't ask how you're doing or if you've decided, at least not until we know whether you can manage them on your own or not. I'm done nagging you, man. Okay?"

"Yeah," he husked, but couldn't meet Blair's gaze, couldn't risk seeing the sorrow there, the disappointment – or worse, seeing hope that maybe it was all over.

"I'm not going anywhere until we sort this part out because I really won't take any chances with your life," Blair said, stepping away. "But I think ... I think that's enough discussion for tonight. Anything else is academic, anyway, until we know whether you choose to keep them and, if you do, if you can manage them pretty much on your own. How about I order some dinner?"

Feeling as if he'd been hammered, nearly reeling with all the issues they had yet to resolve, Jim nodded. "Sounds like a good idea," he agreed, though he wasn't sure he could eat. Blair took another step away, but Jim reached out to grab his arm, so that he turned back, the question in his eyes. "Just one thing ... maybe more than one. And I know we still have to talk about stuff but ... but I want you to know that I do respect you, in more ways than you seem to realize. For how you've helped me with the senses, sure, but also for how you handle yourself on the job. You're good at it, Chief. And I don't know anyone with more moral courage or integrity."

Blair flushed, and his expression softened. "Thanks, man. That means ... that means a whole lot."

"Whether I keep the senses or not, I still want you as my partner."

Blair's steady gaze faltered, then drifted away. "I appreciate that, Jim," he said, his voice soft, even gentle.

Jim thought he finally understood, and helpless regret filled him. "But you're not sure you want me as a partner, are you?"

"Let's just take this a step at a time, okay?" Blair asked, his wide blue eyes lifting in appeal.

"I won't hold you against your will, Chief," Jim said, keeping his words low and slow to keep his voice from breaking. "Even if I still need help, if you don't want to work with me, we'll –"

"I didn't say I didn't want to work with you," Blair flashed, so swiftly furious that Jim wondered if he wasn't protesting too much. "I never said that." His eyes searched Jim's, and he seemed about to say something more, his lips parting, but then he hesitated and his mouth tightened.

Wanting to believe he'd got it wrong, desperate to cling to whatever shred of hope was offered, Jim lifted his hands in surrender. "You're right, you didn't. And you're right, a break would be good. I, uh, I can only take so much baring of the soul." He offered a small smile. "It's not that I don't want to get all this settled ..."

"I know," Blair allowed, giving him a smile in return. "This is tough stuff, important stuff, for both of us. We need to take however much time it takes to get it right. Why don't you take a shower and relax, and I'll order dinner."

Relax? Was he kidding? Jim gritted his teeth and gave a short nod. When Blair headed into the kitchen, he went to the bathroom, and found himself glad for the privacy to brace his hands on the counter and bow his head. What the hell was he going to do? Sandburg had made it pretty damned clear that he didn't think being partners was working, but Jim couldn't imagine doing his sentinel stuff without Blair's backup. Oh, sure, he handled the basics pretty well, most of the time. But build in a bunch of distractions, a shitload of pressure, hell, the common cold, and his senses could be all over the place. Didn't the kid know his help, his presence was essential? Obviously not. And who's fault is that? Jim castigated himself, breathing a curse at his stubborn pride as he yanked the knobs to send water jetting from the shower head. Did he dare keep his senses online if it was only a matter of time before Sandburg moved on?

Stripping and stepping under the spray, Jim closed his eyes and let the hot water pound his body. How many times had he wished he'd never been burdened by hypersenses? How many times had he wanted almost desperately to turn the damn things off? And how many times in the past four years had his senses made all the difference? Had saved lives? Had found Simon when that bastard Quinn had taken him? Being a sentinel had caused a world of problems when Barnes had hit town, but had also allowed him to track her and find the poison gas she'd stolen.

Being a sentinel had allowed him to bring Sandburg back from the dead. How could he reject the senses that had somehow allowed him to do that?

Jim tried to tell himself that Blair had only been murdered in the first place because he'd shoved the kid away and left him vulnerable, but the stark truth was that Blair had been actively hunting sentinels for years. He probably would have found Barnes, who would have probably either killed him or taken him hostage. Who would have been there for him then, if Jim's senses had never come on-line? Hell, he was a sentinel because Blair had told him what he was, and had taught him every single thing he knew about his senses.

What did it mean that he couldn't imagine being a sentinel without Sandburg?

Jim bowed his head against the tile wall and let the water wash over him. So close. He'd been so close to things working out the way he had hoped and needed. So damned close. He laughed bitterly and straightened to turn off the water. Hell, Sandburg even wanted to be a cop; the kid just didn't want to work with him. Reaching for a towel and vigorously wiping the beads of water off his skin, he was sick to his soul to know he had no one to blame but himself.

But it was fear that clutched at his gut and tightened the breath in his chest when he thought of Blair as a cop, out there on the streets without him, beyond his power to protect.

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

ACT IV

Simon signed off the last report in the last thick file from his in-basket and tossed it into his overflowing out-basket. Sighing wearily, he opened the humidor on his desk to draw out a cigar, and leaned back in his chair to sniff it and roll it between his fingertips, savoring the anticipation of smoking it even as a half-formed concern tugged at him. Frowning, he thought about the last two weeks, the last months, and wondered if he'd missed something essential.

"You still here, too?" Joel observed from the doorway, then wandered in and settled heavily into the chair in front of the desk. "You look like you've got something on your mind."

Simon met his old friend's gaze and leaned forward, his elbows on the desk. "I don't know whether to be worried or not," he admitted, his frown deepening as he unconsciously bit his inner lip. He didn't discuss Ellison and Sandburg, not even with Joel; it would be too easy to let something slip. Irritated, he told himself he'd relaxed since Blair had agreed to a full-time permanent position, and even more since he'd gathered that quite a few people didn't believe Sandburg's press conference. But neither man had admitted the truth to anyone else.

Joel watched him, not pressing, just ready to listen. It was a role they'd often played for one another over the years, born of mutual respect, friendship and support as they'd each moved up the ranks to positions that grew increasingly isolated and lonely in responsibility. But, when he didn't say anything more, Joel probed gently, "Jim seems kinda out of sorts. You heard anything from Blair since he got home from the hospital? It's been a bit weird, him not dropping in even for a few minutes. You know, until we all chase him out because he's supposed to be off sick and resting?"

Simon met his friend's gaze. On the surface, the questions were innocuous, but Joel was rarely – if ever – innocuous however mild and even gentle he seemed. "Yes, he does, and no, I haven't," Simon acknowledged, wondering where Joel might take their conversation.

Joel rolled his shoulders and rubbed his mouth, as if also debating what to say. He snorted to himself and, with a half smile, said, "Okay, this is stupid. People 'round here are paid to be observant, to pick up on clues, to evaluate evidence and character, and to sift truth from lies. Let's just say that when all the sifting was done, a whole lot of people made up their own minds about what was true."

Simon grimaced and looked away. He hated this; had hated for years the necessity of silence with those he trusted.

"Oh, relax, Simon," Joel laughed. "I'm not trying to trick you into betraying any confidences. But something is off between those two – and that usually means trouble. I'd vote for being worried."

Simon grunted and then laughed at the absurdity of the situation. "I don't know, maybe," he allowed. "But the kid's been sick. Maybe that's all it is."

"Could be," Joel agreed equitably. "In the past, when Sandburg can't be here, how many days go by before he checks on how Jim is doing?"

Simon gave him a narrow look as he thought about the silence that had stretched for over a week. Sandburg hadn't even bitched at him about 'allowing' Jim into that isolation chamber. In fact, now that he thought about it, Sandburg hadn't said two words to him that weren't required for either work or courtesy since ... since that weekend when the two of them had been off duty and, he frowned, trying to remember – climbing. Since Jim had gotten Blair to tackle his fear of heights. If that was, in fact, the way it had gone down. "You're right," he finally rumbled. "I should be worried."

Joel scratched his cheek. "Things have been pretty quiet around here lately. Good thing, I guess, given how shorthanded we are. But, you know, you're looking tired. Might be a good time to take a break, go up to your cottage, do some fishing. Maybe take a couple friends."

Pretty sure he knew what was coming, Simon's arched a brow and gave him a half grin. "Nice idea, but I'm on duty this weekend."

Joel smiled, looking as satisfied as the cat that got the cream. "I know, that's why I'm here," he drawled. "I wanted to ask you – you think you could trade weekends with me? My son's comin' into town an' I'd like to take next weekend off."

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

The phone rang just as there was a knock on the door. Reaching for his wallet even as he picked up the phone, Blair rolled his eyes, wondering why there was this symmetry in the universe, this propensity for things to happen at the same time. "Hello? ...Oh, hey, how's it going?" he said into the phone as he turned to the door.

But Jim, coming down the steps, freshly dressed in worn and comfortable clothes, waved him off. Blair frowned with reflexive worry – were his senses playing up? Jim usually only wore those jeans and that sweater when his skin was irritated. "Uh, did you want to talk to Jim?" he asked, hoping his friend wasn't getting called back into work. Didn't take a genius to see Jim was tired and tense, and very much needed a break. Blair felt a twinge of guilt that he'd laid so much on the man when he'd just gotten home. "I'm doin' okay; still have a tendency to drop off in the middle of the day," he answered, and mouthed 'Simon' at his roommate as he passed on the way to the door.

Surprised, his eyes widened and he grinned at Simon's offer. "Oh, hey, that sounds like just what the doctor ordered," he exclaimed at the idea of getting out of the city for two days of fishing at the pristine lake in the mountains. He looked up at Jim, knowing he had to have been listening in. "Just hold on a minute, and I'll ask Jim."

Jim closed the door, the paper bag filled with containers of Thai food in his hands, and turned to face Blair, a frown on his face. "What about what we've been discussing?" he asked. "I thought we'd pick it up again tomorrow."

"This isn't something we need to rush through, man," Blair replied, his palm covering the mouthpiece. "I think a little time in the great outdoors would do us both some good."

Jim quirked a brow, perhaps thinking about the last time they'd been 'in the great outdoors', and Blair shrugged. "You're tired, and I'll bet Simon needs a break, too. C'mon, he doesn't ask for company very often."

"Sure, fine," Jim agreed, though he sounded grudging as he set containers on the counter. "Does he want to drive up together?"

Blair lifted the phone back to his ear. "Yeah, we're in," he reported. "We driving up together or meeting you there?" He listened, nodded. "Okay, great. See you in the morning. And thanks, Simon." He hung up and went to the kitchen to get plates out of the cupboard. "He'll pick us up at eight, and we can stop for supplies on the way."

"Great," Jim said, his tone flat.

"Look, if you really don't want to go, I'll call him back," Blair replied, trying hard not to be annoyed.

Jim paused and, his hands braced flat on the island, didn't say anything for a moment, and then he straightened and tossed his hands in the air. "No, no, it's fine. Fishing is fine." When he turned around, Blair felt another stab of guilt when he saw the hurt in his friend's eyes. "I guess I'm just ... I just don't know what to think," Jim said, sounding confused. "I thought we were going to figure things out this weekend."

"Ah, Jim," Blair sighed, and stepped into his friend's space to grip his arm. "I know this is hard. It's hard for me, too. I ... I really think we need to take our time. You have a really important decision to make and I honestly don't think that should be rushed. In the meantime, I think it's a good idea to also take time to remember that we're friends, you know? No matter what, we're friends."

Jim searched his eyes and seemed to relax. He nodded and took the plates from Blair's hands. "Okay," he agreed, turning around to start dishing up their meal. "Let's eat before the food gets cold."

Blair watched him, a bit bemused to realize that they knew each other so well that he hadn't had to ask Jim what he wanted ordered, and Jim knew him well enough to automatically load up his plate with the right selections and portions. Going to the fridge, he got another beer for Jim and pulled out the bottle of juice for himself. "You know," he mused on his way to the table, "maybe we need to include Simon." When Jim shot him a hard look and stiffened, he explained, "I mean, think about it. Part of my problem is the way he acts toward me and, well, I owe him. He did get me the job, right? And he's been in on the sentinel thing from the beginning. Maybe it would help to ... I don't know. Get his take on our options."

The muscle in Jim's jaw jumped, and he evaded Blair's gaze as he carried the plates to the table. But when he took his chair, he nodded. "Maybe you're right," he rasped, still not making eye contact and sounding ... lost.

Sitting back, alarm bells going off in his head, Blair demanded, "What's going on, man? You're acting like you lost your best friend."

Jim flashed him a look before his gaze jerked away, and he shoved his plate back. "I don't know what you want from me," he grated. "You want me to turn off my senses? So you can move on? Fine, just say so."

"What? That's not what I said!" Blair exclaimed. "I said you had to decide what you want."

Jim nodded, his expression testy with frustration. "Right. That's what you said. You also said you want to be more than my sidekick but you won't 'abandon' me if I need you. How do you think that makes me feel, huh? Every time I turn around, I'm costing you whatever hope or dream you've got for your own life. Even if I wanted to keep the senses, how can I, when I know you want to be free of me and my problems?"

"Whoa, whoa, slow down, man," Blair cajoled, hands up as he lurched to his feet. "I didn't mean that!"

"No? Then what did you mean, Chief?" Jim asked, sounding broken and shifting in his chair to turn his whole body away. Shoulders hunched, he crossed his arms and Blair could readily read the defensive avoidance – and the pain – in Jim's posture. "No matter which way I look at it, one of us ends up not getting what we want. There's no win-win here."

Ah, shit, Blair thought, closing his eyes and raking his fingers through his hair. He'd been so caught up in how he felt, and in figuring out what he needed, he'd lost track of how it would all sound to Jim. He'd thought that giving assurances that he'd never leave Jim hanging would be enough, and that their friendship was solid and that the 'no test' test would help them both know where they stood. But he hadn't run it all through his filter of 'how will Jim hear this'. This was the man who'd walked into that isolation chamber, risking his life because he was determined to never let Blair down again. How could he miss the implications for Jim? Dammit, he'd been so caught up in figuring that Jim didn't need him, he'd done what he'd vowed he wouldn't ever do again. He'd acted on the assumption that Jim wouldn't really care, and might even be relieved, to think he could turn off the senses and work independently again – God knew, Jim had said often enough that that's what he wanted.

Disgusted with himself, refusing to acknowledge the flash of irritation that once again it all seemed to be his fault, he moved around the table. Squatting down in front of Jim, he put his hands on his friend's knees. "I'm sorry," Blair said. "I thought you'd be relieved, that you'd jump at the chance to ditch your senses. And if you didn't, I'm pretty sure that we're going to find out that you don't need my backup anymore. I thought you'd ... well, that you wouldn't care if I was your partner if you didn't need me for your senses."

His head turned away, Jim sat back and scrubbed his hands over his face before meeting Blair's steady gaze. Heaving a sigh, he reached out to grip Blair's shoulders. "I've cost you enough, Chief. I don't want to cost you anything more," he said, regret heavy in his voice. "But I don't know how to do this without you."

"Ah, sure you do," Blair assured him. "Until recently, you'd been working more without me than with me for months, maybe a year. You've got great control now."

Jim swallowed hard and looked away. His grip on Blair's shoulders tightened briefly, and then he let go. When his gaze again found Blair, he said, "Don't worry about me, Chief. I'm just ... I'm just tired." Shifting his chair, he moved away from Blair's touch and stood. Gesturing at the table, he muttered, "I'm not very hungry. I think I'll call it an early night." With a smile that looked forced, he added, "It'll be good to relax for a couple days, fish. I don't want to be too tired to enjoy it."

Gaping at him, wondering if he should applaud the performance, Blair sank back on his haunches and watched Jim climb the stairs to his bedroom. "Oh, man," he whispered, certain Jim could hear him, "and you say you don't know what I'm thinking." Shaking his head at the total disaster the evening had become, he pushed himself to his feet and set about clearing the table, packing the food away into the fridge and washing the dishes.

Wandering around the loft, he turned out the lights and stood at the balcony doors to stare unseeingly into the darkness. "There's got to be a way this can work out for both of us," he said softly, as certain as he could be that Jim was listening. "But you have to hear this, man. You haven't cost me anything. Getting to know you, working with you, becoming your friend have been the best experiences of my life; I love you, and I'd gladly do anything for you. And I know you love me. We'll work this out, Jim. We will work this out."

Meeting his own dark gaze in the window's reflection, Blair just wished he had some ideas about how they'd work it out. His mind drifted to the arrangement to go fishing with Simon for the weekend. Inhaling deeply, he closed his eyes and imagined the scent of the air, the sound of water lapping at the shore, and he felt the tension in his shoulders ease. They needed a 'time out', safe ground to rest, relax, enjoy themselves and regroup.

A cough erupted, surprising him, and reminding him that he was still recuperating. The energy that had sustained him during the last two hours had dissipated and he felt the familiar pull of exhaustion. "Night, Jim," he murmured, and headed to his own bed. "See you in the morning."

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

Simon clamped his teeth on his cigar, unlit in deference to his two passengers. When he'd pulled up outside Collette's that morning, his two friends were already on the sidewalk, waiting for him, and they met him with wide smiles and jovial greetings that he would have appreciated more if they hadn't been so obviously forced. As he'd steered out of town and onto the state highway into the mountains, he wondered if they'd regretted their agreement to spend the weekend with him, but hadn't wanted to disappoint him. He was 'the boss', after all, and he had to respect that balancing position and friendship was occasionally challenging for everyone.

But, as the miles rolled away under the wheels of his sedan, he'd revised his first assessment. Staring out the side window, Ellison was riding shotgun and hadn't said a word since the journey had started. He looked pallid with strain, and as if he hadn't had a decent night's sleep in recent memory. His partner was in the back, also staring out the window, also mute. As if the uncharacteristic silence wasn't enough, Blair also looked tense and pale – though some of that might be attributable to his recent severe illness. Wondering if the kid would doze off, hoping he would because he needed the rest, Simon kept an eye on him, flicking frequent glances up into the rearview mirror. Once or twice, he'd spotted Sandburg giving Jim quick glances that appeared both wary and concerned.

Idly tapping his long fingers on the steering wheel, he was glad that he and Joel had trusted their instincts about these two. Something was very definitely off-kilter, something that looked pretty darned serious. For the space of a mile, Simon gave his irritation with them and this latest idiocy free rein. What the hell was wrong with these two, anyway? Just over a week ago, they hadn't really known for sure if Sandburg was going to live or die. Surely, a man who'd put his own life on the line to go into isolation with his desperately ill partner should be able to work through whatever little problem had arisen between them. Because it couldn't be a big problem, right? How mad could Sandburg be at a friend who would risk catching the plague rather than let him fight it alone? And Sandburg didn't look mad. He looked ... confused and worried. Jim, well, you could never tell from that inscrutable mask what the man was thinking. But the occasional unconscious tilt of his head was a dead giveaway for anyone who recognized it for what it was ... he was monitoring the kid in the back seat, reassuring himself that Sandburg was doing okay. Simon sighed and shook his head. Sometimes, they were worse than two kids scuffling in the playground.

Then, philosophically, he kissed off his hopes of an uncomplicated, fun as well as restful, fishing weekend. Oh, they'd probably do some fishing, sure, but he didn't kid himself that it would be easy to get these two stubborn and essentially very private men to share what the hell was wrong now and fix it. Stifling a sigh, he reflected that he wasn't really sure whether he was going to be playing the role of boss or friend ... but whichever cap he was wearing, he was damned worried about them.

Now that he was certain something was wrong, Simon had to stifle the impulse to bellow at them to spill their guts. But though patience wasn't really his strong suit, Simon didn't want to start something when he had to concentrate on the curving, climbing road. So he left them to their brooding silences for the duration of the drive. There'd be time enough over the weekend, when there was no way for either of them to avoid one another or him short of walking out of the wilderness ... and neither man was that unreasonable.

And for that, he reflected with a private smile, he would be eternally grateful. Besides, he knew he held the ultimate key to these two men. He'd bet his pension and every dime of his savings (or as much as he had left after the divorce) that each of them would go to the wall for the other ... and beyond. Shooting a glance at Ellison, and then into the mirror at Sandburg, he considered that, sometimes, that was the problem. They were both so intent upon what the other needed, that they tied themselves in knots. Well, that's why he was paid the higher salary. A big part of his job was to sort things out so that his people could do their best at all times.

Content to let things drift for the two hours it would take to get to the lake, he relaxed and enjoyed the drive.

When they arrived at the rustic old cabin, Simon gazed at it fondly, while still noting the small repairs he'd have to find time for that year. The railing on the porch was sagging a little, and the whole place could use a fresh coat of paint. There was nothing fancy about it. Joan had missed having a dishwasher, a refrigerator that did everything but make dinner, and a bathtub, but Simon was happy so long as the beer was cold, the water from the faucets was fresh and clear, and the shower worked. Hell, he was happy if the roof didn't leak and chuckled at his simple tastes. Joan had also bemoaned the lack of a sandy beach; the shore was littered with rocks and boulders of various sizes, and the ground was stony. But that lake was full of fine-tasting fish, the forests were quiet and smelled good, and he'd always loved looking at the mountains.

Jim and Blair seemed eager to help him unload the groceries they'd picked up in the little village a half hour back down the road, so it wasn't long before the chores of unpacking and putting supplies away were done and they were all reaching for their fishing gear. Simon thought an hour or so of contemplating the lake and soaking up the peace of the area would do them both good, relax them a little, make it easier for him to open them up. Joking about who'd catch the most, and who'd wind up cleaning the catch and cooking it, they made their way to the water's edge and selected positions to cast out their lines. For awhile, there was only the sound of wind rustling through the limbs of the trees, the odd bird call, the low whirrr of fishing line flying through the reels, and the lazy plop of their lures on the water.

Simon had deliberately taken up a position between his two friends and, so far as he could tell, even after an hour had passed neither of them was relaxing worth a damn. A few minutes later, after he'd reeled in his first catch of the day, he took a moment to light his cigar and inhale appreciatively. Jim's nose twitched, but he didn't say anything.

"Those things're gonna kill you," Blair muttered, just like he always did.

"Uh huh," Simon grunted, and flicked out his line. "So, would one of you like to explain to me what's going on?"

Blair shot a look past him at Jim, who only shrugged at first but then, when the silence stretched, said, "Sandburg's –"

But he only got that far when Blair snapped, "I can speak for myself."

"Good," Simon interjected. "Then speak. I'm all ears."

Blair grimaced and raked back his hair, a telltale sign of nervousness. "Uh, well ... it's complicated."

"Mmm, well, I might not be the genius you are, Sandburg, but I've got a Masters degree, too, so I'm sure you can break it down for me so that I'll understand," Simon drawled, hard-pressed to keep all trace of sarcasm and impatience from his tone, and not quite succeeding. Just once, he wished they wouldn't dance around but would simply spit it out.

"Can't we just enjoy the day?" Blair asked, sounding plaintive.

"If I thought either of you were enjoying it, that might be possible," Simon countered. "But you're both wound up so tight that you're not going to enjoy anything until whatever it is is sorted out. So, c'mon. Don't make me work for it."

Blair stiffened, and Simon rolled his eyes at the kid's ingrained resistance to authority. "You asking as our friend or ordering me, as our boss?" Blair countered, anger and bitterness now resonating in his expressive voice.

Frowning in surprise at the tone, Simon studied the man. Why was the kid's temper on such a short fuse? Sandburg was usually pretty easygoing and it was Ellison who reacted with anger. And where was that bitterness coming from? "Right this minute, I'm whatever you need me to be, Blair," he replied, all trace of irritation gone as concern filled him.

Blair's expression softened into regret. "Sorry," he sighed. "Guess I am wound pretty tight." His gaze wandered over the lake and up toward the mountain peaks. "It's just ... this isn't easy."

"Okay, take your time," Simon allowed, turning to lean his rod against a nearby rock and perching on another. This looked like it was shaping up into something that was going to take awhile.

Blair bit his lip and then, with another sigh, he also reeled in his line and set his pole on the ground. Turning to fully face Simon, he seemed to be having trouble maintaining eye contact. "You and Jim have been really good to me," he began. "When you thought I had nothing left, you even offered me a paying, permanent job. But – and I don't think it's conscious or malicious, just habit that's become ingrained over the years –" he blurted, words now tumbling over one another, "but you both treat me like I'm still that inexperienced, naïve, and no doubt annoyingly exuberant, unpaid civilian observer cum grad student you first met four years ago." His gaze finally locked on Simon's, and he sounded exasperated as he stated, "I'm not that guy anymore. I haven't been for a long time."

Thinking about that, wondering where Blair was going with it, Simon narrowed his eyes and glanced over at Jim. Ellison gave a small half-shrug and slight waggle of his head that indicated that he reluctantly thought the kid had a point. Looking back at Blair, Simon asked, "And this is a problem because ...?"

"The way you treat me exhibits a profound lack of respect," Blair stated. "Before I even get three words out, you're telling me to get to the point or asking me if the story is going to be relevant. Sometimes, you ignore me completely when I'm speaking, and talk over me. Other times, you look at Jim in annoyance and say, 'He's your responsibility', or ask, 'Can't you control him?' or 'Is he always like this?' and you shake your head. Jim's not a lot better. He walks away while I'm still talking, or cuts me off, or clips me on the head and tells me to pay attention like I'm a recalcitrant ten-year-old."

He paused, his gaze skating away, and again raked his hair back. "I really don't want to sound like a whiny girl here who wants everybody to make nice; that's not it. It's that you guys don't treat anyone else like you treat me. Would you complain to H that he should have Rafe under better control or say he was responsible for Rafe? If you treated Megan like you treat me, she'd eat you alive. It's disrespectful. And ... and my position is ambiguous enough, you know? I mean, I don't have the credentials necessary for the work – police work, detective work – and, well, it's like I've been hired just to be Jim's shadow, not for anything I can bring to the job, to make a difference in my own right. So ... so others will take their lead from you guys and if you treat me disrespectfully, then why should any of them treat me any different?" Blair again lifted his gaze to meet Simon's and this time he could read the hurt there, and the sorrow. "What do I do if and when Jim doesn't need me anymore? Do I still have a job or am I supposed to take the hint and just, I don't know, move on?"

Well, shit, I didn't expect this, Simon thought, feeling a rush of irritation, even anger. Sandburg was making what could be serious charges of abuse of power and authority, and Simon knew he wasn't that kind of boss or man. Nevertheless, he scrolled through his recent memories of discussions in the office, what he'd said, what he'd observed without really seeing it, and did his best to do so from Sandburg's point of view. He expected to find examples to refute Blair's words, only to discover to his unpleasant surprise that what he remembered wasn't particularly flattering. The kid – no, the man – was right; Simon did treat him differently than he treated the other staff. Maybe because he was different, but that wasn't the point here. Scowling heavily, disappointed in himself, Simon rumbled, "I'm sorry, Blair. You have the right, and more than enough grounds, to make a formal complaint."

"Oh, hey, no," Sandburg exclaimed, waving his hands as if to force away any such idea. "You guys are my friends. I just ... it didn't matter when I was just an observer."

"Well, I'm not sure I agree," Simon returned, shaking his head. "I guess you just looked so young ... I didn't realize how often I was treating you like a child." He looked toward Jim as he committed for both of them, "We'll do better."

Blair sighed. "I know you'll try. But we're friends, not just colleagues or boss and subordinates. The behaviors have become habitual, ingrained, and they're also, often, just playfully meant, I know that."

"No, we'll do better, and you'll let us know when we fall back into old patterns," Simon assured him. When Blair still looked troubled, he challenged, "Surely you don't seriously question whether or not we respect you or the contributions you make? I thought we were past all that a long time ago."

Blair stuffed his hands in his jeans. "And what about when Jim doesn't need me anymore?"

"You mean when he retires?"

"No, I mean when he gets promoted," Blair replied, appearing so honestly sincere that Simon laughed.

"Jim's not going to be promoted," he replied.

Astonished, acting as if he'd just been royally insulted, Blair argued, "What? Why the hell not? He's more than qualified. What if he gets tired of working on the streets or if he gets hurt and needs to take a desk job? Of course he'll get promoted someday!"

Simon turned to Jim. "Well?"

"I stopped taking the exams when I made detective," Jim explained. "No way do I want to tap-dance with the mayor, or fight over budgets that are all political and have just about zilch to do with the jobs that need to be done, or go to all those meetings and cocktail receptions or deal with the rest of the crap that Simon has to put up with. If the day ever comes when I can't do this job any more, I'll resign and find something useful that I can do."

"Oh," Blair gusted, blinking in surprise. Looking as if he needed to think about that, he faltered into silence.

Jim hesitated, then rasped, "Tell him the rest, Chief."

"Rest? There's more?" Simon echoed, not entirely surprised. And then he recalled what else Blair had said. "Oh, you mean what happens if Jim didn't need you anymore, what then? Well," he scratched the back of his head, "I hadn't thought that far ahead. But, no, I can't see you having to 'move on' unless something happens and you both decide to leave."

Blair didn't look satisfied with that, but it was Jim who supplied, "He wants to go to the Academy. He wants to be a cop."

"What?!" Flabbergasted, Simon gaped at Jim and then turned to Blair. "You can't be serious."

"What do you mean?" Sandburg countered defensively. "You're the one who told me I had to go –"

"I said you'd have to be self-defense and weapons certified," Simon cut in. "And I still think that would be a good idea."

"But it would be better, right, to get the full credentials?" Blair persisted. "I'd have more credibility if I was a cop."

"Don't be ridiculous. You wouldn't last two weeks," Simon retorted.

He saw the furious look Sandburg flashed to Jim, heard the bitter words, "See, I told you he didn't really respect me," and he had to bite off a curse. Lifting a hand, he urged, "Whoa, just slow down here. I'm not saying that because I don't respect you or don't think you can make worthwhile contributions to the PD. And I do understand your point about credentials, especially given the, uh, oh hell, the press conference you gave." Simon scratched his cheek, wondering where to go with this, but he was certain Sandburg couldn't have thought it all through. "So, okay, let's take this a step at a time. Why do you want to be a cop? You already do everything there is to do in Major Crime in terms of the investigations."

"What if I don't want to work in Major Crime?"

Simon blinked and seriously began to wonder if he'd failed to notice falling down a rabbit hole at some point that day. "Where would you rather work?" he asked, knowing he sounded disbelieving. Where else was there to work? Vice? Come on. Homicide? MC got the toughest, most difficult cases anyway. Robbery? The kid would die of boredom.

"Community Policing," Blair said, quiet but sure. "I think my education and experience working with a number of different cultures would really help there, and make a real difference in improving the relationships between the PD and the inner-city communities."

Simon blew a long breath and looked out over the water. "Let's see if I understand. You want to go to the Academy so you can walk a beat and do your time in patrol, hopefully in the inner-city so that you can improve relationships, one at a time, alone, until you're assigned somewhere else by some bozo who outranks you but hasn't a clue about what you're trying to achieve."

Turning to Blair, he was gratified to see doubt and uncertainty clouding Sandburg's eyes. He hadn't thought it through, hadn't imagined how it would play out in real life, so Simon persisted in detailing how he saw the future unfold for Blair, if he became a cop. "And then you'd blow up at the idiot, end up on report – that happens enough times and you're out on a disciplinary discharge. As a rookie, believe me, a big part of the on-the-job training in orientation is about discipline and learning to take orders without question. There's a good reason for that, so individuals can respond quickly in crisis, but I just don't see you being happy in a role like that. Can you really see yourself playing the 'yes, sir, no, sir, whatever you say, sir,' game if you have to? For years? For the rest of your career, because there's always going to be someone who outranks you?" he asked. At Blair's crestfallen expression, he quickly added, "Don't get me wrong, I agree you have the knowledge and expertise to make a difference, but I think there may be better ways to go about it. You don't have to go to the Academy to use the knowledge and expertise you already have."

Blair bit his lip. "You're right, I wouldn't be happy," he admitted. "And ... and I'm sorry I jumped to the wrong conclusions about why you don't think I'd make a good cop. But ... but I have no credibility."

"I think you've got a lot more credibility in the PD than you give yourself credit for. You'd make a very good cop in a great many ways, but I still think that route is a waste of your talent and expertise. You're right, though, credentials are important. It would be better if you had your PhD, but with the masters, you can still make a case to Captain Hollins in Community Policing to offer training and coaching to her people. Since that wouldn't take all your time, you could do that from your position in Major Crime."

For the first time in weeks, Simon saw the old light flare in Blair's eyes. "You mean it? You'd support me in making a proposal like that?"

Shrugging, Simon replied, "I don't see why not. Depending on the case load, you might need to have some flexibility in whatever arrangements you make. I'd want Major Crime priorities to come first." Blair nodded, his gaze distant, and Simon could almost see the wheels turning under all that hair. Good, they were making progress, but when he checked on Ellison and took in the taut shoulders, the rigid posture, and the way Jim was distancing himself from the conversation, he knew he was a long way from getting to the bottom of the problem between the two men.

"So, where do you fit in all this?" Simon asked, feigning a mild, innocent tone. "You okay with Blair taking on projects like that?"

Jim shrugged. "Doesn't much matter what I think. Sandburg doesn't want to keep working with me."

"Jim, that's not what I said," Blair protested.

"No, well, let's see," Jim snapped, for the first time shifting toward them. "You've got me doing this 'no-test' test, to see if it's safe for you to go to the Academy, or back to Rainier for your doctorate, or to eventually transfer out to another unit. And you've suggested that if it looks like I might still need a guide, one option is for me to turn off my senses. Since you're the guy who has always told me they're natural, a part of me, and you're not even sure there is a way to turn them off, that sounds to me like you're pretty damned desperate to move on."

"That's not fair and you know it," Sandburg shouted. "You're the one who hates the damned tests, who's always saying you wish you could turn them off. I've just gotten tired of fighting you on it, that's all. They're your senses. If you don't want them, then fine, turn them off."

Ah, this is more like it. Filing away the surprising reference to Rainier for later, Simon puffed on his cigar and thought they were finally getting down to brass tacks. He crossed his arms and settled back on the rock to watch the fireworks.

Panting, still short-winded from being sick, Blair rubbed his mouth, and continued more slowly at a lower volume. "And besides, you might even be right. Maybe you don't need all the tests. My analogy of working out in a gym to keep sharp and in top working condition might be complete hogwash. You've been doing great for months, maybe more, whether I've been with you or not. I'm pretty sure you don't need me anymore, that's all. But I won't make any decisions until I know that for sure. I will not leave you at risk."

"And I've told you that I won't hold you hostage," Jim grated. "You do whatever you want. I ... I'll manage."

Blair rolled his eyes and threw up his hands as he turned away. Deep hurt flashed across Jim's face and then was gone, hidden behind that infernal mask. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the water, as if the conversation – such as it was – was over.

Simon cleared his throat. "You haven't told him, have you?"

Jim glared at him. Swiveling back around, Blair demanded, "Told me what?"

"That he zones when he's been pushing too hard, or when he's worried, like when you were first put in the hospital two weeks ago. Or that he gets pretty bad headaches whenever you aren't able to be with him as much, because of university demands or whatever. It's been getting worse since ... well, let's say for nearly a year now."

Blair gaped at him, and then stared at Jim. "That's been happening and you didn't tell me?" Breathing hard, he didn't seem to know what to say, but the disappointment and something Simon thought looked a lot like despair filled his face. And then Blair said into the silence, "You meant it, didn't you? That you couldn't trust me again. And you can't. You felt bad after I ... after I died, so you let me move back in and everything but ... oh, God." Swinging away from them, he lifted his hands to cover his face and he sank down onto his knees.

Simon looked at Jim, who was standing there looking lost and helpless. "Oh, for God's sake," he cursed. "Would you just come clean about whatever has been eating at you since we got back from Mexico? Let alone since that whole mess over his dissertation? Twice, I've heard you say that you didn't think you could work with him anymore, and both times I was sure you didn't mean it. But if he's right and you don't trust him, he deserves to know it. But if he's wrong, then you better clear this up before it really is too late."

Jim nodded stiffly. "Can you give us a little space?"

"I don't think so," Simon returned repressively. When Jim looked at him in shock, he softened his tone and expression, but remained adamant. "This has gone on far too long, and the breach between you has obviously eroded so badly that Sandburg may be right that you can't work together anymore. That isn't just your problem; it's mine, too. So I need to know there are no more half measures and bandaid treatments here."

Jim's expression froze, and his jaw clamped together so hard that Simon wondered if it ached. "I'm trying to be your friend, Jim, and not just your boss. I don't think there's anything you have to say to him that you haven't said to me privately over the past year, or that I haven't already pretty much figured out for myself. I know why you haven't been candid with him. But your tendency to hold back, to protect him, isn't working. Is, in fact, making a mess of things. I need to know you've told him the truth because, if you don't, I will."

The starch seemed to bleed out of the man. Looking toward Sandburg, Jim nodded again and made his way to his partner's side, where he dropped to one knee beside him. "Chief, you're jumping to conclusions, without getting all the facts," Jim began, his voice so low that Simon had to strain to hear.

"Yeah? Then enlighten me, man. What are the facts?" Blair asked roughly, his head still bowed away, but he brought his hands down to clutch his knees.

Jim reached out tentatively, but then drew back without touching. Simon rolled his eyes, but he bit down on his inclination to just blurt it all out. Jim had to tell the kid the truth, not keep it all bottled up.

"After the fountain, after seeing you dead..." Jim rasped, and nearly choked on the words. "I don't ever want to see that again." He stood, started to pace. "And it was my fault, dammit. I'd pushed you away. Left you vulnerable. When I got you back, all that mystical – I was glad, hell, I was ecstatic that it worked, but it scared the shit out of me."

"You went to Mexico without me," Sandburg said, old hurt and uncertainty in his voice.

"Geez, Chief, you were still in the hospital! You needed to recover! But I would have left you behind anyway when Simon and I went after her because I never wanted that bitch near you, ever again, not because I didn't trust you." Jim stopped and lifted his hands only to let them fall to his sides, a curiously helpless gesture. "After Mexico, what I did there ..." Jim's words faltered and he looked away. "I hated myself. Still do. I don't know how you can't despise me. She killed you and I ... I...."

Blair's back straightened and he lifted his head to look at Jim. "I don't despise you. I never did. I don't understand what happened with her anymore than you do, and I don't understand the mystical stuff any better than you, but ... none of what happened was your fault, Jim. What I took away from all that was that I was dead and you brought me back. You gave me another chance at life ... and you let me go back home to the loft."

When Jim shook his head and turned away, Blair rose and grabbed his arm. "I fucked up badly, man. I should have told you there was another sentinel, or at least a possible sentinel, in Cascade. God, it's no wonder you wanted me out of your space. You must've smelled her on me, my clothes. It just never occurred to me that she was ... well, that she was evil." But his shoulders hunched again. "And then I messed up again with the diss. I never meant for anyone else to see it but ... good intentions aren't worth much, are they? You're probably right not to trust me. But I swear I don't do these things deliberately. I don't mean to betray you. I just do."

"Oh, that's such shit," Jim retorted. "You've never betrayed me. You've made mistakes, sure, but like I told you in the hospital, this tendency toward self-effacement really isn't you. What happened to all your confidence, huh? Where did it go? You used to get in my face and fight me when I got out of line but," Jim paused and tilted his head, obviously thinking. "It was after I read the first chapter wasn't it? You stopped fighting after that."

Blair shrugged and held up a hand, the thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "I was this close to blowing everything with you. Sure, the paper was important to me, but not as important as our friendship. When we got back from Mexico ... it's confusing to die, man. I felt off-balance all the time. And I did fight with you. I felt like we were constantly fighting, over that twerp, Brad Ventriss, or Veronica, or that you wouldn't admit you'd seen Molly. With everything else that's happened, I feel like I'm walking on eggshells all the time, like I'm still around on sufferance but it wouldn't take much for you to give me the boot again. Half the time I resent it, so I get mouthy, and the other half of the time I'm just scared you'll decide to call it quits."

"But you didn't give me hell for Mexico," Jim argued.

"That wasn't your fault," Blair insisted. "But, if trust isn't a problem, then why didn't you tell me you were zoning and having headaches?"

"I ... things had gotten so intense. Dammit, you died! Essentially, you got killed on the job," Jim burst out. "I thought ... I thought it would be safer to involve you less, to let you get on with your academic career. When you started getting serious about finishing your paper, I thought you'd decided you'd had enough of the rollercoaster."

"And look how that turned out," Blair laughed, and Simon winced at the harsh, humorless sound.

"Chief, you're not responsible for your mother's attempts to help you," Jim said, sounding tired. "I know I didn't say that at the time. I was ... it was all too much. I just wanted things to go back to the way they were."

"To the way they were before you met me," Blair sighed.

"No, no. To the way things were before it all fell apart, the way we used to work together, and have fun and ... just the way things were before." Neither of them said anything for a minute, and then Jim went on. "I didn't tell you about the zones because ... because I thought it was time I started dealing with it all myself so you could be free to get on with your life. But after the dissertation, when Simon got the clearance, I was relieved and very glad to know you'd be working with me and that it seemed to be what you wanted, too. But I guess I was wrong about that."

"No, you weren't," Blair admitted. "But ... you still hate the tests. And I know you resent me when I insist on them. It's not great news that you've been zoning, but you've obviously been managing with someone else's help. Simon? Megan? It shows that you don't really need me. And maybe we'd get along better, not risk our friendship, if we ... well, if we didn't work together."

Jim rubbed his hand and just shook his head.

"I don't agree," Simon intervened. "Blair, you seem to think anyone can do what you do."

Looking back at him over his shoulder, Blair replied, "Anyone can do what I do. They just need the information."

"You said Burton wrote that every sentinel had a companion, a guide," Jim asserted.

"Well, yeah, but the guide's not important. It's just someone who understands the support a sentinel needs, that's all."

"I'm not so sure," Simon said doubtfully, and waved at them to come closer. "I think this is something we need to take a good hard look at." When they'd perched themselves on nearby rocks, Simon observed, "I guess, over the years, you ran into quite a few other anthropology students who'd heard about sentinels and were interested in finding one themselves."

"Well, no, actually," Blair drawled. "I mean, they heard about sentinels from me and if they were studying pre-civilized cultures. But everyone – and I mean everyone – thought I was nuts to think I'd ever find a sentinel in our modern society."

"That so?" Simon murmured, not entirely surprised, but genuinely curious. "Huh. So how did you get so interested in sentinels yourself?"

Blair ducked his head and a light flush crept up his cheeks. "You'll really think this is pretty stupid," he muttered. Taking a deep breath, he looked from Jim to Simon and back again. "By the time I was six, I'd already lived in more different cultural communities than most people experience in a lifetime. I heard a lot of stories from the shamans and ... well, they always ended up saying something like, 'when you find your sentinel, you'll know these things'. So, I started to believe that I'd find a sentinel, that I'd find 'my' sentinel. Of course, as I got older and did some research, I realized that the idea of 'my' personal sentinel was ridiculous. I mean, sure, I thought I could maybe help a sentinel someday, like anyone who understood the concept of hypersensitivity could, but ... but I never stopped believing that I'd find one, if I just kept looking and never gave up." Simon found the grin he gave Jim was a very welcome sight. "And I did. I found one."

"Blair, the heightened senses are genetic, right? Inherited?" he probed, and noted that Jim was listening with almost avid intensity.

"Yeah, you know that, Simon."

"What if the ability to work with sentinels, to almost instinctively know what a sentinel needs, and have them respond, is also genetic?"

"Oh, well, no, that's ... no, that's not the way it works."

"Uh huh," Simon grunted. "You've never seen me bring Jim out of a zone, have you?"

"Yeah, yeah, I did," Blair replied, frowning as he thought about it. "It was that time when Jim heard a man being dropped from a helicopter into the lake." He gave Jim a sheepish glance. "I knew you'd zoned, but nobody was paying attention, and you hadn't been sleeping well. I thought maybe the zone might be a good thing, kind of like a power nap, so I didn't bring you out of it right away. But then Simon arrived and wanted to talk to you." Returning his attention to Simon, he added with obvious annoyance, "And you nearly blasted out his eardrums, shouting at him the way you did. Man, that was not necessary. But, I guess if you've been bringing Jim out of zones for months now, you know that."

"Hmm," Simon murmured noncommittally. "Why are you so definite about not leaving Major Crime – if that's still what you want to do – until you're sure Jim doesn't need specialized backup anymore? Jim's been a grown man for a very long time. You're not responsible for him."

Blair stiffened, and anger flashed in his eyes. "How can you even ask that!" he exploded. "There's no way I'd ever, ever take a chance with Jim's life. If I ever thought that he really needed my backup, as opposed to anyone who could help him focus and keep him grounded, and ... well, you know. If I thought that, I'd never consider leaving. It's ... a sentinel cannot work alone. Ultimately, that's like giving him a death sentence. Jim ... Jim deserves a whole lot better than that."

"You'd stay because you had to, not because you really wanted to," Simon pushed.

"No, no ... I love working with Jim. He knows that. He's just too stubborn to remember it when he thinks he's holding me back or something. It's just ... you don't understand. Jim really hates the tests and ... and I don't want to risk ... I don't want to risk him eventually hating me."

Simon turned his attention to Jim. "You mind showing him how well I bring you out of it when you go to la-la land?"

Blair growled in annoyance, but Simon just smiled benignly. Jim met his gaze and was obviously reluctant. "He needs to see this, Jim. He needs to understand. And you need to remember that he's a grown man, too, capable of making his own decisions."

Jim's lips thinned and his gaze dropped, but he nodded. "Give me a minute," he said, looking around the area, tilting his head to listen, searching for something to zone on. He nodded again and, shortly thereafter, his gaze became unfocused and there was a subtle change in his body, as if he was no longer there, somehow. Gave Simon the creeps.

"You paying attention?" he asked Blair as he stood and approached Jim.

"Sure, of course. You just need to touch him and call him back," Blair coached, apparently unable to resist giving instructions, and then seemed abashed. "Sorry, you know that."

To humor him, Simon reached out to lightly clasp Jim's arm and he called to the man in a normal tone of voice, which he knew was far louder than the volume Blair typically used, because he was usually trying to avoid attracting attention. Jim didn't respond. Blair frowned. "It never works," Simon told him. "Not for me, not for Megan. To get him out of a zone, we have to do this." With that, Simon took Jim's hand and pinched the thin membrane between his thumb and forefinger – pinched hard enough to leave a mark. Jim flinched and hissed as he jerked his hand away. "It's either that, or slap him if we're not in a public place, or shake him and shout loud enough to wake the dead."

"Slap, shake ...!" Blair spluttered, outraged. "That's so unacceptable and completely unnecessary!"

"It's necessary for anyone who isn't you," Simon replied with calm conviction. "Blair, you seem to think your role has come down to reminding Jim to check his dials or touching his arm or back if he's using his senses, to keep him grounded. And I can see why you'd think that, because when he's working with you, everything works really well. His senses just work better when you're around – or am I wrong about that, Jim?"

"No, you're right. Everything's ... easier when Sandburg's around. But he shouldn't have to give up his own life just to meet my needs."

"Well, I'd say that's Blair's decision, not yours," Simon countered.

Turning back to Sandburg, he said, "You know I don't pretend to understand this stuff. But it's obvious to me that a sentinel needs a guide, and evidently, according to this Burton guy, they always worked with someone. We've seen what happens to a sentinel, or someone who might have been a sentinel, when they don't have a guide. Jim thought he was crazy or maybe had a brain tumor or some damned thing, before you found him. Alex ended up twisted and completely out of her mind. Blair, you see the sentinel as being special, very special, and you're right. Jim's senses give him an edge, make him extraordinary at his job. But it seems to me that the person who guides the sentinel is every bit as important. For one thing, you keep him safe when he's doing his thing. I don't know if you know how astonishing it is for him – hell for anyone – to be able to trust someone so completely as to let go and lose track of what's going on around him, especially in highly dangerous and volatile situations."

Simon paused, not wanting to rush through his reasoning, wanting Blair to really hear what he was saying. "Jim has not only learned how to use his senses effectively from you, he's learned to completely rely upon you, so that he can function to his full capacity. And despite what you think, Sandburg, not everyone can do what you do. Hell, no one even believed sentinels existed, except you. No one else searched and searched for virtually their whole lives until they found him, just when he needed you most. There must be something in the sound of your voice or the way that you smell or ... hell, I don't know, but you can reach him when no one else can."

Once again, he paused, and looked at Jim, who was nodding thoughtfully, before turning back to Blair. "I think you may be as genetically gifted as he is, only in different ways." Simon shrugged. "I'm way out of my depth here, but I think in ways I don't begin to understand, Jim feels safe when you're close, sheltered from everything that comes at him and sometimes overwhelms him. However much he probably has trouble admitting that, he needs what you give him. He's just more ... focused and yet relaxed when you're around. And I don't think he can do his best work, or anything even close, when you're not."

"I'm right here," Jim griped caustically.

"I'm well aware of that, Detective. And if I thought you'd say these things yourself, I wouldn't have to," Simon sniped back. "Is there anything I've said that isn't true or that I've misconstrued?"

"No," Jim replied, sounding tired, his momentary irritation gone. Rubbing the back of his neck, he added, "I guess I'm surprised you know all that. I know I've told you some of it but..."

"Yeah, yeah, you don't like people knowing too much about you; makes you vulnerable." When Jim shot him a hard look, Simon held up his hands and chuckled. "And I understand completely, because I'm not that different. But I've been watching you guys do your thing for years. I've seen you both when the other one's not around. Sandburg here nearly goes out of his mind with worry when he thinks you're in trouble; and you're on edge, not yourself, when you're working without him, because it's hard, tiring, I understand that. And if Jim thinks you're in trouble," he went on to Blair, "well, let's just say he'll do what it takes to find you and get you back, even if what it takes is a miracle. Nobody knows that better than you."

Jim snorted, but Blair smiled softly, though he also looked embarrassed.

When the other two men lapsed into silence, Simon was pleased to note that their expressions were more thoughtful than defensive or closed, and their bodies had lost most of the tension he'd noted earlier. They'd covered some rough, intensely personal ground, and they had a lot to ... what would Blair call it? Oh, yeah, they had a lot to process. Simon thought back over everything that had been said, sure he'd missed something, mostly because Sandburg was still looking uneasy. And then he remembered them shouting at each other earlier. "Tests," he said and, the way they both flinched, he knew he'd hit a nerve. "What's this hassle over tests?"

"Sandburg gives me a series of tests every week, like exercises, and let me tell you, they aren't a lot of fun," Jim replied, sounding caught between grudging and regretful. "But ... I make a bigger deal of it than is necessary. It's just that I feel like a performing seal or some damned thing."

"Learned behavior," Blair murmured. When they both looked at him, he explained, "We all fall into habits. It's unconscious and it makes a lot of sense for simple things that we shouldn't have to think about, like tying our shoes. But we can also fall into habits in relationships. Habits that continue over time whether they're still appropriate or not. Like the way you guys have tended to treat me at the PD. I put Jim through about a zillion tests when we getting a grip on the range of his senses and what he could do, and all the time, he knew some of it at least was for my doctorate. So he ended up feeling like a lab rat, and he resented it – legitimately. Nobody wants to feel dehumanized. But these tests are different. Well, maybe not a lot different. I guess they're still pretty unpleasant."

"I can imagine – or maybe I can't. Frankly, I'm not sure I want to," Simon replied. "But you said it was like working out to stay in shape, right?"

"Exactly, only I'm not really sure whether it's necessary, or maybe not as often, anyway."

"It's been two weeks since you stopped doing tests?"

Both of them nodded. Simon thought about it. He knew Jim hadn't been at his best in the last two weeks, but there were reasons for that, his worry about Sandburg being paramount. And he was well aware that he was venturing far into water that was well over his head. He had no idea what it took for Jim to function at peak sensory performance levels. Finally, he shrugged. "I think that's something the two of you have to work out between you. And you're working on that, right? With this 'no test' test thing?"

"Yeah, that's right," Blair replied. "If, uh, if Jim decides to keep his senses online."

Simon quirked a brow. "Is that really in question?" he asked, looking from Sandburg to Ellison.

"Incacha implied he could stop being a sentinel if he wanted to," Blair said, his gaze downcast.

"I didn't know that. Is that what you want?" Simon asked, honestly curious. He wasn't sure he could handle the hassles and discomforts that seemed to be part of Jim's everyday life.

Jim bit his lower lip, then shook his head. "No, no, these senses, they're not easy but ... but they're part of me, of who I am. I'm not going to give them up again."

Blair's head jerked up and he smiled. "That's great, Jim," he said, hardly louder than a breath of air. "That's really great."

I think my work here may be done. Simon stood and looked out at the lake. "I guess the two of you have some thinking to do, maybe some more talking. But I think we've talked more than enough for one afternoon, and I don't know about the two of you, but I'd really like to spend some of the weekend fishing."

Blair laughed softly when Jim practically leapt up from his perch on the rock and headed back toward his own rod and reel, calling, "Works for me," over his shoulder. When Simon caught his eye, Blair said very quietly, "This is really tough stuff, especially for someone who is so independent and ... and worried about others getting hurt on his watch."

"I heard that," Jim growled, but he tossed them a lopsided grin.

His smile widening, Blair looked up at Simon. "Thanks, man. I need to think about what you said, but talking it out has really helped. We were ... well...."

"If you're thinking of hugging me, Sandburg, forget it," Simon rumbled repressively. But he smiled in return and clapped Blair on the shoulder as he passed him on his way back to the shoreline.

Later, over a dinner of fresh trout, fried potatoes and a garden salad, Simon swallowed and waved a fork at his two friends. "Did I hear this afternoon that you may be going back to Rainier? What's that about? I thought that door was slammed and bolted from the inside."

Blair's face lit up with a joy that Simon hadn't seen in a very long time, and he looked in those moments like the old Blair, the one he'd met years before, so exuberant and full of life. "Simon, you won't believe it!" he cheered, and the story spilled out of him like a flash flood. "Eli Stoddard came to see me in the hospital – he was my mentor and the senior advisor on my dissertation committee, which was a real coup because he's like one of the top three anthropologists in the world – anyway, he came to see me and he said that if I want to go back and finish my doctorate with a different dissertation, then there's nothing to stop me. I guess the Chairman summarily expelling and firing me, when the university had, uh, aided and abetted the illegal dissemination of my intellectual property, which I had never submitted as my dissertation, upset just about every academic there. If she could do it to me, then what was to stop her from getting rid of anyone she didn't want on the faculty. So there was a groundswell of protest, and Eli said that if I made any kind of an issue of it, she'd back down because she's got no support, not even from the Board or the Regents."

Simon sat back. "That's very good news. Seems to me that doctorate is all the credibility and validation you could want to legitimize offering consulting services to other departments ... and I suspect a number would be glad to take you up on it, on a project by project basis."

Jim broke a roll apart and started to butter it. "Brown and Rafe told Blair that his personal credibility is solid because virtually no one in the PD believed his press conference. The patrol cop that was in Isolation with him – Mac – pretty much confirmed it."

"You didn't tell me that," Blair interjected.

Shrugging, Jim swallowed the bite he'd taken. "You weren't conscious at the time and ... well, it wasn't anything you hadn't already heard, right?"

"He, uh, he asked me about you," Blair confessed. "Wanted to know if you were some kind of Superman."

Jim sighed and sat back, shaking his head.

"I told him you weren't, that you just had better sensory acuity than anyone else we were ever likely to meet. Your scenting of the early stages of our sickness showed him that the scuttlebutt and speculation in the department was true."

During their exchange, Simon had been thinking about how he hadn't heard that the rumors about Jim were so pervasive, and he made a note to talk to his 'ears' – Rhonda and Joel principally – to find out why he'd been so out of the loop. Frowning, he asked, "You okay with this, Jim? With so many people figuring things out?"

"H and Rafe said that people have known something was up for years," Blair said when Jim didn't respond. "This is one of the strengths of a closed society. They close ranks, keep secrets within the community. In all this time, there's never been a leak, no media interest based on 'internal sources', or anything."

"Apparently, quite a few people at Rainier didn't believe the press conference, either, and have figured things out for themselves," Jim added quietly, pushing food around his plate with his fork. He heaved a sigh and shook his head. "When I think of the hoops we've all gone through, trying to be so careful, and what Blair gave up ... it all seems so futile. Guess I've been an idiot figuring that nobody would notice us working crime scenes."

"Not only you," Blair added, with no little chagrin. "But I really think it's okay, Jim. The people who don't know are the ones we don't want to know – the media and the bad guys. It is okay, isn't it?"

Jim's gaze dropped and he gave a small shrug, but then he went very still. His gaze came up to meet Blair's. "You know how I feel about people knowing – like Mac, wondering if I'm some kind of comic book character," he rasped, his voice tight with strain. "But ... but I guess that's just my, what did you call it? Habit? Old thinking? Because, rationally I know ... I know it hasn't made any difference in how people have worked with us over the years. And, when it comes right down to it, the only one who has paid a real price here is you, Chief. After what you did, what you gave up, if you're okay with it ... if you're okay, then so am I."

Blair lifted his wine glass, a small smile playing around his mouth. "Then I guess we're okay," he said, with a subtle salute to Jim before drinking that Simon found oddly moving. He felt as if he was witnessing a profoundly important moment, one he only partially understood.

Finishing his dinner and leaning back in his chair, he wiped his mouth with one of the paper towels they were using as napkins. "You know," he reflected, "since we've gotten up here, all I've heard it pretty good news. Blair can get his doctorate, Jim wants to keep his senses, you're both okay that it's not quite the secret we thought it was, Sandburg here is obviously recovering well from his recent bout of plague, if his prowess in catching the most fish today proves anything. It's been a good day."

The other two murmured their agreement.

"Okay, good," he said as he stood to gather up the plates to carry them to the sink. Blair started to follow with the empty wine bottle and the salad bowl, but Simon stopped him. "Leave it, Sandburg. You look like you're about dead on your feet – maybe you'd better turn in early."

Blair hesitated and his slightly muddled expression suggested he wasn't sure whether to be grateful for the concern or irritated with being treated like a kid who didn't know when to go to bed, but then his face cleared. "You're right," he said. "I'm beat. It's been a long day. A good day ... but, yeah, I think I'll crash. Thanks."

Simon cleaned up the kitchen, while Jim busied himself with building a fire in the woodstove in the living room because the evening was beginning to grow cool. Carrying two mugs of coffee and a bottle of whiskey, Simon joined him. Once they were both settled with their doctored beverages, Simon asked, "You think things are going to be okay?"

Jim's gaze dropped, and he chewed on his lower lip as he thought about it. "I don't know," he finally replied, low and regretful. "I'm not sure he's prepared to give me another chance."

"What the hell happened?"

Jim's jaw muscle flexed and, for a moment, Simon wasn't sure he was going to answer. But then, Jim flicked him a look that held a world of regret. "He gave me a chance to get even for the tests he puts me through. I, uh, I insisted he climb a cliff up in the Cascades. He didn't want to do it – really didn't want to do it – but I wouldn't listen, wouldn't give him an out, didn't ask him why, just pushed, told him he'd given me his word and I trusted him to keep it." Jim fell silent and, after setting his mug on the battered old coffee table, he loosely linked his fingers and sat with his head bowed.

Simon watched him closely, the way he wasn't making eye contact, the slight tremble in his hands, and held his peace. Waiting for Jim to continue, he took a careful sip of the hot coffee.

"Blair snapped," Jim rasped, his voice rough and thick. "I've never seen him so angry. He ... he looked like he hated me. Blair wouldn't allow me to attach the safety line. Said if I insisted that would be it: we'd be done, finished. Then he went up the cliff and came back down like an expert free climber, and was still furious when he dumped the gear on the ground. When we got back to our camp, I pressured him into telling me why he hates heights." Sitting back, Jim sighed deeply. "I'm not sure what else I can tell you – it's his story, not mine."

Simon frowned. "I think I can guess," he rumbled, feeling sick just imagining what Sandburg must've experienced another time, on another cliff.

"Well, that makes you smarter than me. I taunted him, said I figured someone had screwed up – or he had – and it scared him so bad he couldn't climb again, to make him tell me. When he still wouldn't, I threw the trust thing at him." Jim's voice caught and was hoarse, barely a whisper when he continued, "I can't believe I did that to him, forced him. Hell, I can't believe I didn't know what had happened to him until then, that I never asked why he hated heights. He said ... he said that the guy who ... he said that guy might have been the only real friend he's ever had." He turned his face to meet Simon's gaze, and Simon read devastation in his eyes. "If it was the other way around, if he'd pushed me that hard after I'd done all he's done for me, I'm not sure I'd forgive him. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't."

"Sandburg's not you," Simon observed, though he wondered himself why Jim always pushed the kid so hard. "So that's what he meant about you hating the tests he puts you through. You hate them so much that you'd do that to him to get even." He pondered that. "You know, Jim, if the tests really are that bad, if it takes that to manage your senses, to stay in control, maybe they aren't worth it. Maybe letting them go is something worth at least thinking about."

Jim shook his head, and reached for his mug to take a deep swallow. "They're not that bad," he husked. "I was out of line. What gets Blair is that he sees it as being deliberately cruel – I didn't, I really didn't mean to torture him. I just didn't think it through."

"If the tests aren't that bad, why do you give him such a hard time about them?" Simon asked, mystified. "I mean, they're for your own good, right? They help you?"

Jim nodded slowly. "Yeah, they do. They keep me sharp, and sometimes we trip over new uses, or new ideas about how to use them." Staring into the flames visible through the glass door of the stove, he went on, "Why do I give him a hard time? Because I always have." He took another hit of the potent coffee. "Because I'm a miserable sonuvabitch."

"Why do you do that?" Simon exclaimed, frustrated and seriously irritated with his best friend. "Why do you ..." But his question died in the asking. If Jim knew, he probably wouldn't keep repeating the same dysfunctional pattern. Heaving a long, slow breath, he observed, "If Blair decides he doesn't want to partner with you ... dammit. I don't know if you can manage the senses without him."

"Well, that's what the no-test test is about," Jim told him morosely. "But we both know what the outcome will be. I'm always going to need him."

"What the hell are you going to do?"

Jim huffed a hollow laugh. "How many times have I told him that I can't trust him, that it's over? When he really hasn't done anything wrong? When I just wouldn't hear him out? And now? I've told him I'm sorry. I've ... I've been on good behavior ever since. There's nothing more I can do, Simon. It's up to Sandburg. He's gotta decide whether he trusts me enough to give me another chance."

Simon nodded in understanding and agreement, but that wasn't his only concern. "I can't let you on the streets without a partner who –"

"Don't worry about it, Simon," Jim cut in. He finished his coffee, set the mug on the table, and stood. "I don't know if the senses will keep working if I don't have a guide who helps me keep them sharp." He started to turn away, and then paused. Head down, he said quietly, "Thanks for bringing us up here. I ... I appreciate what you did today." Walking away, he called over his shoulder, "G'night, Simon."

Watching him go, Simon tried to remember if he'd ever seen Jim look so discouraged and ... broken. Grimacing, he cursed silently, but long and viciously. Maybe these senses were worth it. He'd sure seen Jim do some amazing things, including saving his life and his son's more than once, and bringing Blair back from the dead. So, yeah, maybe they were worth it.

But those two men sure had to pay one helluva high price in return.

He rubbed his mouth and pushed himself to his feet. After taking the two empty mugs to the kitchen, he pulled on his jacket and went to sit out on the porch to smoke a cigar and look up at the stars. Once he got the cigar going, he sat back and let the silence of the night soak into him. Above him, the dark peaks cut into the sky, blocking the stars behind them. And below, the moon floated on the still lake, lustrous and ethereal. Simon tried to find some perspective in the massive majesty of nature; their human preoccupations and concerns were small and petty things, and that whatever happened, the world went on.

But he couldn't stop thinking about his two friends.

At different times during the last day, both Blair and Jim had intimated that the senses could be turned off, or would maybe just fade away. Maybe they were right. Jim's heightened senses had normalized twice before in his life: when he was a child, after his coach had been murdered, and after he got back from Peru. Had his former coach been his first guide? Incacha, his second? Would the senses have returned to normal if Blair had never found him? He shook his head, the questions beyond his ability to answer. He supposed if Jim could return to 'normal' he should be glad for the man, but Jim had accepted they were part of him, part of how he now defined himself. What would it do to him to lose those special and unique abilities?

Simon hoped he'd never have to find out. Was there anything else he could do to help them sort it out? No, no there wasn't. They were grappling now with issues that could only be worked out between them: the whole thing about the tests, and the fundamental issues of trust and the risks inherent in an unknowable future. He'd done as much as he could do and now it was up to them.

Sandburg's voice echoed in his mind. I love working with Jim. He knows that. He's just too stubborn to remember it when he thinks he's holding me back or something. It's just ... I don't want to risk him eventually hating me.

Reassured by the memory, puffing contentedly on his cigar, Simon smiled to himself. Seemed to him that his friends wanted the same things, so he had to believe – more, he had to trust – they'd work it out.

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

Blair woke to muted sunlight glinting through the leaves of the tree outside his room, and the enticing scent of fresh coffee. Yawning, he stretched and then lay for a minute savoring the quiet and peace of the forest. For the first time in weeks, he felt free of tension and uncertainty. If Jim had been zoning because he'd not been spending enough time working with Jim earlier in the year, and Simon and Megan had to resort to inflicting significant pain and discomfort to bring him back, then there wasn't any question about what Blair's future would be, at least for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, he'd sort things out with Rainier and get his doctorate, which was both his safety net and his ticket to credibility as a consultant with the PD.

Thinking about the discussion down by the lake the afternoon before, he felt warmth suffuse him at the knowledge that Simon had really listened, had accepted what he'd had to say and had indicated he'd been right to raise the issues and concerns. And he was really pleased that both Jim and Simon wanted him to stay in Major Crime, and both were more than willing to at least try to change their ingrained habits in their behaviors toward him. For a moment, he mused about some of the other things Simon had said. Oh, he didn't buy into Simon's wild theory that he was somehow born to be a guide, though he smiled wistfully at how really neat it would be to think he was special like that, like Jim. But no, Jim was just used to him, the sound of his voice. Over time, they could work on that, find others who Jim would respond to equally as well, so he wouldn't be completely dependent on Blair in case ... well, just in case.

But he frowned when he thought about the difficulty the others had in bringing Jim out of a zone. He could see why Megan might have trouble connecting with Jim, but Simon? Jim had known him for years, and trusted him. They were friends, very good friends. Why wouldn't Jim come back when Simon called him? That didn't make sense. Unless ... unless –"

The soft rap on his door and Jim's voice disrupted his thoughts. "Hey, Chief, you awake?"

"Uh, yeah, man, just getting up," he called back and ambled to the door to open it. Yawning again, he raked back his hair and smiled. "Coffee smells great. Do I have time for a shower?"

Jim smiled back. "Sure, if you hustle. Simon growls when he's hungry and the man wants pancakes in the worst way."

Blair laughed and, when Jim stepped back, he made his way across the hall to the tiny bathroom and the metal shower stall that was older than he was – and looked it. "Give me five," he called over his shoulder.

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

Jim returned to the kitchen and poured himself a mug of coffee. Simon turned from the window, a brow arched. "How is he this morning?"

"Good," Jim replied and took a careful sip. "Looks like he slept better than he has in a while – and his lungs sound a lot better. Coming up here has been good for him."

Looking pleased, Simon nodded and rustled in the cupboard to pull out the pancake mix and a bowl, while Jim got milk and eggs from the fridge and set them on the counter. He wished he'd slept as well as his partner apparently had. But he'd spent the night listening to every creak in the cottage as the heat of the day bled from the wood, every whisper and rustle of leaves and critters skittering through the night, every hoot of a hunting owl.

Blair had been wrong; he did hear it when Blair said he loved working together. That wasn't the problem, hadn't really ever been the problem, not the one that had left Blair feeling insecure and uncertain. No, the problem was that ever since Sandburg had confessed that he was stalling because he'd gotten hooked on the rollercoaster, Jim had been wondering if he shouldn't be steering his young partner back toward his own life – the life that was safer, where he didn't get shot or kidnapped. All the events that had happened since had only served to convince him that he was right: if Blair hung around with him long enough, the kid was going to get killed. So he'd withdrawn further, working more with others or on his own, struggling to do his best with his senses without Blair's help.

And yet... and yet... at the same time, he'd wanted to grab hold of the kid with both hands and never let go.

Jim couldn't deny he'd been deeply relieved when Blair had agreed to work with him fulltime, despite the fallout between them over the leaked dissertation. He'd felt that Blair had forgiven him his failure to listen, and for everything he'd said, all the accusations that Blair had sold him out. But he'd also been quietly, even secretly, glad Sandburg had turned down the badge in favor of a consultancy, because Jim didn't want him on the front line but well behind him, where he could be as safe as was possible.

But at the same time, he'd felt guilty, as if he'd taken advantage of the fact that Blair didn't have much other choice, that in protecting him, Blair had lost everything.

And he'd despised himself for allowing it, for accepting that it was fine for Blair to sacrifice his career, to save his. Stoddard had accused him of never questioning it, never setting things straight, had said his silence had been eloquent, and Jim couldn't disagree. But, hell, it wasn't like loathing himself, his need, was a new feeling. Right from the beginning, after Danny was gunned down and he could so easily imagine Blair being killed – especially after Lash had taken the kid – Jim had been scared that Sandburg would pay the ultimate penalty for being there for him, helping him every damned day of the week and too many all-night stakeouts to count.

His initial irritation with Sandburg's non-stop chatter and irrepressible good spirits had soon given way to an amiable liking, an appreciation that the kid had guts, and wouldn't walk, wouldn't let him down. Then, one day, he'd looked at Blair and realized he loved the kid, that Blair had become his family. Sandburg had become the one human being that Jim could not bear to lose, not when he'd already lost everyone else who had counted on him, mattered to him.

That's when Jim knew he had to get a handle on his senses, had to learn how to control them on his own. He could not keep asking the kid to risk his life day in and day out. Only ... he couldn't get a handle on them, not consistently, and they never worked as well for him alone as they did when Blair was with him. So the months rolled into years and, over time, Blair talked less, stopped bouncing and, after he had indeed been murdered, his eyes had lost their sparkle. Hanging around Jim, helping him, had cost the kid so much, so damned much. Too much.

So, yeah, for a long time now, Jim had despised himself and despised the senses that had made it all necessary.

Despite that, on any given day, he'd been able to shut the emotion away, lock it down, pretend that everything was just great; accept Blair's help and use his senses in the pursuit of justice. But whenever Blair sat him down and forced him to go through the hoops, it all crashed into him, his contempt for himself, his hatred for his senses, and his despair that he was unable to make it right because ... because....

His thoughts had faltered there. Because what? He'd have to admit to being a freak? All his cases would be in question and the dangerous felons who had gone to jail might be back on the streets? Weirdos would come out of the woodwork to challenge him, make him a target? The media would never give him any peace? In giving Blair back his future, he – Jim – would be losing the best partner he'd ever had? The best friend he ever would have? The man he needed to function?

So, yeah, he'd hated the damned tests and drills. With a passion. And he'd always wondered when Blair would get tired of it all, and regret the choices he'd made. Seemed that time had come. Oh, sure, Blair would stick with him if Blair believed his help was essential, but that didn't make it right to hold Sandburg hostage to the senses and his need. Simon had said that it was Blair's decision to make, but Simon didn't understand. He wanted Blair safe, wanted him to live a normal life, get married, have a bunch of curly-headed, talkative little Sandburgs with big eyes and wide smiles that could melt the hardest heart.

He should have been delighted when Blair had hit the wall and declared it was enough, that he wasn't going to take any more shit. But he couldn't bear to think about what his life, his work, would be like without Sandburg as his partner, couldn't begin to imagine how empty his home would feel, how bereft his life. Should have rejoiced ... except Blair dropped the bombshell that he wanted to be a cop and, for Jim, for Blair to be a cop and not be his partner was the worst of all possible worlds.

Jim knew enough psycho-babble to know he was 'conflicted'. Had been 'conflicted' for years. And he knew he had to get a grip, that it couldn't go on because his unpredictable, and even sometimes downright mean behaviors were driving them both nuts. He knew all that, was desperate to find a way to fix it all.

But he didn't know how.

So, he'd tossed and turned, and stared into the darkness until it grayed into dawn. He'd slept for a while then, a few hours, but had no more answers when he woke than the night before. So he got up, showered and shaved, pasted a half-smile on his face to be sociable, and retreated into his semi-stoic facade, the one behind which he pretended nothing could touch him, or hurt him, his thoughts and emotions hidden, and he looked like he had nothing to say. Or, at least he liked to believe that; but he suspected both Sandburg and Simon had his number and could see right through him, and that was a distinctly uncomfortable notion.

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

After the late breakfast, they spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon down by the lake. Each of them caught their limit, but they continued to enjoy the pristine day, releasing the fish they caught. Sitting in the sun, with his back braced against a rock, Blair dozed for a while, and the older men were both glad to see him getting the rest he needed.

Simon didn't pursue the discussion of the previous day, figuring that both his friends needed time to think, and then time to talk without 'their boss' listening in. He was just glad that they were both evidently having a good time, the silence and tension of the day before but a memory.

Jim was more than happy to simply enjoy the relative quiet and the fishing. Sandburg's color was better, and his lungs were good. His partner seemed relaxed and held his own with the good-natured teasing and joking that characterized their downtime. Jim figured that Blair still had a lot of thinking to do about his options, especially about Rainier, so he wasn't surprised when Blair didn't say anything about the discussion the day before.

After what he'd learned from Simon and Jim the day before, Blair thought it was obvious that he'd continue as Jim's partner, so he didn't feel any need to announce it to the others. He was simply eager to regain his strength and return to work, because he worried about Jim when he wasn't with his partner. But it did occur to him that in accusing the others of having fallen into habitual behaviors, he hadn't thought about his own habits, or how he might have fed into their tendency to treat him as someone perennially young, too trusting, and essentially helpless. He wasn't a kid anymore, hadn't been for a very long time. And though he didn't have the skills to fend off the determined attack of someone like Lash or Alex, he had never been, for as long as he could remember, 'essentially helpless'. He was a man, would soon be thirty years old, and he needed to make some of his own changes so that others would see that he wasn't the naive student they'd once known.

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

Though Jim badly missed Blair's help and presence at work for the third week in a row, he found it was a lot easier to plan a birthday bash for his partner without said partner being underfoot. He'd initially rented a back room at one of their favorite Italian restaurants on the waterfront, Noodles. But as word went around the PD, more and more people indicated they'd really like to be there, people from Patrol and Records, the Evidence Lockup, Forensics and even from other units like Homicide and Vice. Jim soon found himself negotiating with the restaurant to virtually take it over for a private party on Friday evening. He'd heard from Stoddard, too, and apparently quite a few of Blair's former colleagues also planned to be there. Quirking a smile as he reviewed the guest list, Jim was really pleased to see that it was going to be quite a crowd. Brown and Rafe had volunteered to coordinate the joke gifts; Megan and Joel said they'd look after getting a gift from Major Crime as a whole, and Simon suggested certificates entitling Sandburg to thirty hours of weapons training at the local gun club and thirty hours of self-defense training with the best instructor in town. Simon told Jim that he'd feel a whole lot better if the kid got the training and given Blair's concerns about credibility and having the requisite skills, they both thought Blair would appreciate the gift.

Jim didn't want his personal gift to Blair to be given publicly. For one thing, they'd never given one another birthday gifts, and he wasn't sure how Blair would react. But Blair was always coming up with stuff for him, for his senses, like the white noise generator and special 'green' cleaning products and even the extravagance of silk sheets. He wanted to give something appropriate and meaningful, and he put a lot of thought into it. The thirtieth birthday was a milestone and Jim didn't want to get him ordinary stuff like a new sweater; he thought about having that old wreck Blair called a classic detailed but he didn't think anything would make the heap of junk look or run better. There was one thing, though, that he really wanted to give Blair. His friend might think it a little too much, but it felt right for a whole lot of reasons. So he made a few calls to make the arrangements.

With every day that passed, Jim could tell that Blair was getting better, stronger. His color was back to normal and there was energy in the way he moved and in his eyes; he no longer looked like death warmed over. His scarred lungs might never be fully healed, but Sandburg wasn't coughing anymore, and his breathing was deep, easy ... normal. Jim wasn't exactly sure what the kid was doing every day, because Blair still wasn't talking much. Oh, he asked now about the job and the senses, and there was no particular tension between them, but Jim felt as if things were still 'off'. He knew Blair was often out when he called during the day, but Blair never volunteered where he'd been and Jim hadn't asked. More than once, he'd found the newspaper folded open to the 'apartments for rent' columns but, since Blair hadn't said anything about moving out, he hadn't raised the subject. He hoped that, while Blair might be considering other living arrangements, he'd eventually decide against the idea. Coward, that's what he was, and he knew it.

Jim could understand why Blair might be tired of living in the virtual cubbyhole under the stairs. And he was making a good salary now, so he could afford a decent place of his own. Yeah, it made sense. No reason Sandburg shouldn't get his own place. Most guys their age didn't live with someone they weren't sleeping with. But ... he liked sharing the place with Sandburg, liked the company. Wasn't the same sitting down to eat alone; wasn't even the same cooking just for one. And splitting the chores got them done in half the time, leaving them more of their limited amount of off time for other things, fun things, like watching sports or movies on the tube, or reading or going to a game or the gym, or ... well, just more time to relax. It was sure more convenient when they got called out on a case in the middle of the night. If one of them got hurt on the job, the other one was right there to help out. And, well, much as he hated, really hated to admit it, even to himself, because it made Sandburg sound like some kind of teddy bear or security blanket, Jim knew he relaxed better, felt more at peace, when Blair was there. Home was his refuge, and Blair was what made the place a home.

Still, he couldn't really expect his partner to be satisfied living forever in that little room. Eventually, Sandburg would probably want to get married and it would make sense for him to get his own place then. Jim didn't expect to marry again. The whole idea just made him feel tired. Never say never, he cautioned himself wryly, but between his senses and his trust issues, his job and his personal reticence – in short, given his abysmal track record – he didn't think another marriage was likely. He liked the loft, liked the neighborhood, but the place wasn't perfect. The elevator was always on the fritz, the water heater was the size of a peanut, and maintenance in general left quite a bit to be desired. So ... maybe they could invest in a bigger place together. If one wanted to get married, he could buy the other one out, or just get a whole other place but, in the meantime, it would be economical to share and ... well, they did get along and it was convenient.

So Jim started looking at the condo and house for sale pages of the newspaper. Just to get an idea of what was out there. Just in case the subject came up.

Blair hadn't said anything all week about their conversations during the past weekend. Jim figured he'd given up the idea of going to the Academy, and was positive he would take steps to finish his PhD – in fact, he'd bet that one of those times he'd called and Blair hadn't answered that his friend was over at Rainier, talking with Stoddard. But the kid hadn't said anything else about remaining partners, or not. After Simon had blown the whistle on him, and made it clear to Sandburg that Jim wasn't managing his senses quite as well as Blair had been assuming, Jim was sure Blair had resigned himself to remaining partners, at least until some other, acceptable, arrangements could be made. No doubt, Sandburg still believed that anyone could do what he did, providing they had the right training.

Jim wasn't so sure. He was inclined to think Simon might have been right about his idea that there was something intrinsic about Blair that made him so effective as a guide or companion or whatever they wanted to call him. 'Partner' was the word that Jim found he preferred because it implied an equality that the other terms didn't. But it was more than that. As close as partners could be on the job, closer often than spouses, Blair was closer still. Blair was integral to his life.

But, damn, he hated the idea of holding the kid hostage for the rest of his life, just because Blair was essential to his wellbeing and effectiveness. Sighing, no closer to having an answer than he'd ever been, Jim pushed the problem away and looked at the clock; would soon be time to head home and pick Sandburg up for dinner. Jim couldn't help smiling when he thought about how surprised Sandburg was going to be.

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

Blair liked the feel of his new blue cotton shirt, the weave finer – and a whole lot more expensive – than he'd ever been able to afford before. He hated anything tight around his neck, so he left the collar open, glad that a casual look would be fine for Noodles. His new pants were a dark charcoal, and the sports coat was a lighter shade, almost steel blue that contrasted well with the shirt. Blowing a breath, he examined his freshly-shaved reflection in the bathroom mirror and, for the first time, wished they had a full length mirror somewhere in the loft. Jim didn't know it was his birthday; he'd just suggested dinner out because it was a Friday evening, and maybe because Blair would be returning to work after the weekend. A kind of celebration because he was feeling better. Or maybe Jim just didn't want a repeat of the awkward Friday evening they'd had the week before. It didn't matter. Blair was glad to be going out, and he'd decided that since it was his thirtieth birthday, he was going to start his new 'grown up' image that night. The grunge look might still surface when they were working undercover, and when he was off duty, but at work downtown or at crimes scenes, he was going to look a lot more professional.

When he heard the key in the lock, he left the bathroom and was walking into the main living area when Jim came in and, without looking up, shut the door behind him. "Hey, Chief," he called, as he turned, "you ready to – holy shit, Sandburg! What happened to you?"

Gratified by the effect of his surprise, but not entirely sure the reaction was positive, Blair gave his friend an uncertain smile. Holding his arms out to the side, he explained, "Since I'm being paid now to hang out at the PD, it occurred to me that I could afford some decent clothes, so I went shopping this week and treated myself to a whole new wardrobe. And, well, I also thought if I looked less like a perennial student, it might be easier for you and Simon to, uh, you know, treat me more like the other guys."

Gaping at him, Jim had come closer and was now circling him. When Jim was again facing him, his partner reached out to playfully tug a curly strand of the wild, tumbling layers that now just barely brushed his collar. Nodding, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth, Jim said, "Different. Very different. The hair. The clothes. But you look good, Chief. Real good." He laughed and added, "You'll be giving Rafe a run for his money as the best dressed guy in the unit."

Really pleased by Jim's reaction, Blair's smile widened. "Great. I, uh, thought I'd give the new look a dry run tonight. Sort of celebrate being able to go back to work next week." His smile faltered. "Actually, to celebrate still being alive. I didn't thank you, Jim, and I should have. I'm not sure I'd have made it out of that isolation unit if you hadn't been there. It was a really crazy, dumb risk for you to take, but I'm glad you did."

Jim's expression softened. He gripped Blair's shoulder and said, "I had to be there, Chief. I could no more have left you alone in there as fly to the moon. And I know you'd do the same for me." Then his gaze fell away, as if he was embarrassed, and he gave a small shrug as he let go of Blair's shoulder and looked at his watch. "Guess we should get going."

Blair returned to his bedroom to get his new trench coat, and Jim gave a low whistle when he came back out. "Who knew you had good taste?" Jim teased him as he waved him out of the loft.

Laughing, Blair pushed through the door into the stairwell. He felt great, really great, and was looking forward to dinner. His thirtieth birthday was turning out to be pretty darned good.

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

On the ride to the restaurant, Jim told him about the new case they'd just been assigned, to track down the mobile meth labs that were flooding the streets with cheap drugs. Blair glanced at him thoughtfully. "We're gonna have to watch your sense of smell – it may help us find the labs, but we don't want the fumes getting to you." Jim nodded and, pulling into the parking lot behind Noodles, tried not to count too much on Blair remaining his partner, but it was good to know that he'd at least be back on Monday. It was also a relief to no longer be getting the silent treatment when it came to his senses.

When they walked in, Jim wasn't sure who was more surprised, Blair or everyone else. His partner was obviously floored by the shouted, "SURPRISE!" and nearly jumped out of his skin but then he laughed and, as he took in the banner congratulating him on his thirtieth, he exclaimed, "Oh, wow, I sure didn't expect – how did you know?" to Jim, his eyes sparkling with delighted happiness. But after their first exuberant shouts, everyone else gaped in stunned silence at Blair's new look.

"Whoa, Hairboy, lookin' mighty fine, my man!" Brown called out, and Megan moved closer to run her fingers under the lapel of his new sport coat and then ruffled his mop of sculpted curls. "Very nice," she crooned.

"My God, Sandburg, does your mother know you've joined the establishment?" Simon teased, but his smile conveyed warm approval. After that, others called out comments and everyone relaxed.

Blair moved through the crowd, shaking hands, hugging many, slapping others on the shoulder – and then stumbled to a halt when he spotted the group from Rainier. Once again, his gaze found Jim's, and his joy was very nearly breathtaking to behold.

Snagging a beer from a passing waiter, Jim leaned against a pillar in the entryway. Supremely satisfied with the way things were going, immensely glad that he'd thought to check Blair's birthdate, he told himself that this was one of his better ideas. He hadn't seen Blair look that happy in a very long time. Reflective for a moment, he wondered if bad things sometimes had to happen to make way for good things. He would never have thought of finding out when Blair's birthday was, would never have known it was his big three-oh, if he hadn't screwed up so badly in insisting Blair climb that cliff. Maybe there was a kind of balance. No doubt Sandburg would say it had something to do with karma.

Joel came to stand beside him. "Looks like our little boy is growing up," he joked.

"Yeah," Jim agreed. There was no question that Blair's shorter hair and new clothing made him look more like a successful businessman than a grad student, older and more confident. "Yeah," he said again, thinking about the kid who had blown into his life and made it immensely, indescribably better.

"Everything okay, Jim?" Joel asked, concern shadowing his warm, dark eyes.

"Tonight? Everything's great," Jim assured him with a smile.

Joel searched his eyes but let it go at that, and Jim was glad he did because he had no answers for what the future might hold.

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

Epilogue

God, what a great night it had been! Blair was still staggered by the surprise ... the first time he'd been given a surprise party, ever, and one of the very few times anyone had bothered to celebrate his birthday with him. Man, it had been incredible to have both his worlds there, the university and the police department. The Rainier contingent had given him a first edition that Eli knew he'd long coveted, and he was delighted with the self-defense and weapons training certificates from the PD. The joke gifts – hair dye to hide the gray, a free consultation for hair replacement therapy, several funny cards, and other stuff he was too dazzled to remember – had also been a lot of laughs. And he couldn't get over how many people had been there, filling the restaurant, all there to wish him well. So great. So, so great.

And he knew he had Jim to thank for it all.

"Thanks, man," he said again, as they made their way into the building. "I had the best time. I've never had a surprise party before. Nearly had a heart attack when everyone yelled 'surprise', and I still can't believe how many people you got to come. I really appreciate it, Jim."

"Hey, when word got around about the party, we had to draw lots because the restaurant wasn't big enough to hold everyone who wanted to be there," Jim joked. "I'm glad you had a good time."

"Oh, hey, for sure," Blair enthused. "Great gifts, too. After what Simon said last week, I knew going to the Academy wouldn't work, but I'm really glad to get the training anyway."

Jim nodded as he unlocked the apartment door and waved Blair in ahead of him. "And the evening's not yet over," he said with a smile. He drew an envelope out of his inside jacket pocket and handed it to Blair. "Happy Birthday, Chief."

"Ah, Jim, you didn't have to," he demurred, but felt warmth fill him again at his friend's gesture. He didn't even care what was in the envelope; the fact that Jim had done it all for him, especially as they'd never before celebrated their birthdays, was just so terrific.

"I wanted to," Jim assured him. "Go on, open it."

Blair slipped off his trench coat and Jim hung it and his own jacket, while he opened the envelope. Inside there was a card that showed two young boys wrestling, dirt smudging their faces. Inside there was another plain envelope and the card's caption read, 'I don't say mushy stuff much, but everyone should be lucky enough to have a brother as great as you. Love, Jim'

Blair felt tears sting the back of his eyes, and a lump filled his throat. For a moment, he could only nod until he could find his voice. "Thanks, man," he rasped, and sniffed. Looking up to meet Jim's eyes, he added, "You know I feel the same, right?"

"Yeah, I know," Jim replied and drew him into a quick, but hard, hug before urging, "Open the other envelope."

"Oh, yeah, right." Blair drew out a thin strip of paper and he wasn't sure at first what it was – Rainier's logo was printed on it and it was a receipt of some kind. "What ...?"

"The year's fee, for you to go back and get your doctorate."

Blair was so surprised he wasn't sure what he felt. "What? But ... why?" he stammered, unable to even form a coherent sentence.

Jim gave him a gentle shove toward the living room. "Want a beer?"

"Yeah, sure," Blair agreed, feeling stunned. "Jim – this is too much, man. 'Way too much."

Jim got the bottles from the fridge and uncapped them. "We both know you want to do it, Chief," he said as he walked into the living room and handed him a bottle. "I'd bet a month's pay that you've already talked to Eli Stoddard this week, about putting things in motion to let you go back. And you deserve it. You worked half your life to get this far and you'd've had it already if ... well, I want to help you get it. I can't do any of the work, obviously, but I can do this."

Blair looked down at the receipt he still held in one hand, and then took a sip to moisten his suddenly dry throat. What message was Jim giving him here? That he felt bad, guilty maybe, about everything that happened over the diss? Or that he wanted Blair to get on with finishing his degree so he could move on to a career at the university or wherever – somewhere not the PD and not Jim's partner? "Tell me you didn't do this because you feel guilty or something stupid like that," he murmured.

When he looked up, he found Jim watching him, looking unhappy. "I just figured that we should both end up winners, both get what we want, Chief. You covered for me, so I got what I wanted – my privacy back, the chance to do my job without the media making it impossible, and you as my permanent partner. But it cost you ... so much. I just want to help you get what you want – the credentials you worked so hard and so many years to achieve. I know you can be a consultant at the PD with your Masters; you've already got that job. But I also know you'd feel better if you had the doctorate."

"So you're not saying you want me to, I don't know, go back to academia fulltime, or something like that?"

"Blair, I want you to do whatever it is you want to do, pure and simple. If ... if that means that you don't want to be my partner for the rest of our lives, or at least our careers, well, that's more than understandable," Jim replied. Pacing restlessly, he sighed and said, "I'm really sorry for the stunt I pulled three weeks ago, but I can't go back, can't undo what's done."

Rubbing the back of his neck, not looking at Blair, he went on, "I realized that night what a colossal jerk I've been too damned much of the time, and how much I've taken you for granted over the years. And I'm sorry for that, too." Finally, he met Blair's gaze. "I can't believe how much I don't know about you, about your life. About what you want, what you'd choose if you could do anything, have anything, be anything. You're my best friend – hell, you're more my family than Dad or Steven – but I haven't always been the friend you deserve. If ... if you decide you've had enough of putting up with my bitching and my moods and my senses, I can more than understand that."

Blair opened his mouth to answer, but Jim held up his hand. "Chief, you think I haven't noticed that you've been looking at 'apartment for rent' ads? And I can see why you'd want something better than that storage closet under the stairs. Or that you haven't said anything more about what you want to do about working together. I can understand if you don't want to partner with me any longer than it takes to train someone else to work for me. I've given you all kinds of mixed messages because ... because I want you to keep working with me, but I don't want to ... to cost you more than ... ah, shit, I'm no good at ... I just want you to be happy, okay? But I also don't want to lose what we have. I don't want you getting hurt on the job. And I don't know how to make everything safe."

Jim blew a long breath and rubbed his hand back over his head. "But ... but I was thinking, if you wanted, we could maybe buy a place together, a bigger place. Would be a good investment financially for both of us and ... and you could still help me with my senses if I was having problems. And, well, I enjoy your company and I'd miss you if you moved out. Later on, if you ever want to get married, well, one of us can buy the other out. But that way, at least if you end up going back to Rainier or spending all your time at work doing consulting, well, at least we ... we could catch up at home and still be friends."

Jim's suggestion that they invest in a place together was very nearly staggering, and he felt the last of his uncertainties about how Jim felt about him and whether Jim really wanted him around 'in his face', melt away. But, needing to be sure, to have no lingering doubts about their working partnership, Blair pushed, "So, you're saying you'd be okay with it if I want to be your partner – that it wasn't just a pity offering after –"

"Of course I'd be okay with it!" Jim exclaimed, sounding exasperated. "God, Chief, what more do I have do or say to convince you?"

"Well, you could promise to stop whining about the tests and drills I put you through," Blair suggested, teasing now as he settled back against the sofa and took a sip of beer.

"I thought we were doing this 'no test' test," Jim hedged.

Blair snorted and raked his fingers through his hair. "Yeah, well, Simon kinda blew that out of the water last weekend, and you said things work better when I'm around, so I pretty much assumed that meant that your senses aren't calibrated to work at peak performance all the time. Not yet, at least."

"Probably not ever," Jim muttered. "Sandburg, you're the one who said you didn't think we could keep working together, not me."

"Yes, because I'm tired of jumping through your hoops and proving myself to you, to be worthy of your trust. I just don't know what you want from me anymore, what more I can do or say ... I don't want to spend the next twenty years wondering when you're going to tell me again that it's not working out."

"No more hoops, Chief," Jim said, his voice low and fervent. "I promise, no more hoops. I just ... I worry about you – I worry about you getting killed and I ..." His voice broke off and he shook his head.

"Jim ... I know you worry about me getting hurt, and not without reason. The work's dangerous. I worry about you, too. And you spent the past four years being responsible for me, so I know it must be hard to let go. But you're not responsible for me now. I'm all grown up, Jim. I make my own decisions and believe me, after four years of tagging along behind you, I know what I'm letting myself in for, here. I want to do this, Jim. Yes – I want my doctorate, and thank you for helping me with that. But I want it ... I want it mostly for the day when, when you won't need me anymore." Blair paused. "But it's also really important to me to know that you're not going to keep fighting me on your senses."

Jim huffed a laugh. "I can't promise I won't bitch sometimes. But I do know that I need the practice if I want to stay sharp."

"Okay, well, I guess I can settle for that," Blair allowed, and worked hard to keep from smiling. Jim's idea about them buying a bigger place was so surprising, so unexpected, that Blair had to be sure Jim was serious before he jumped in with both feet. "So ... have you been looking at houses or condos or what?"

Looking startled by the sudden shift in conversation, Jim shrugged, and seemed uncharacteristically diffident. "Just at some of the ads. Why?" he asked, lifting his gaze to meet Blair's. "You think that might be an idea?" There was no mistaking the hopefulness in his voice or expression.

"Yeah," Blair replied with a sudden bright grin, the joy bubbling in his chest scarcely containable. "I really like the idea of having more space. I just never thought you'd want to move out of here. You wanna go looking at places this weekend, maybe get a feel for what's out there, and the prices? I mean, there's no rush, but eventually it would be good to get a bigger place."

Jim smiled and Blair could see the tension ease out of his shoulders. "Sure," Jim agreed, with a decisive nod. "Sounds like a good idea," he said, and settled in his chair. "So ... does this mean you've forgiven me for the cliff?"

Blair looked away and thought about it. So much had happened in the past three weeks, the whole thing about the cliff seemed like it had happened a long time before. Man, the fallout had sure led them down some interesting paths, and he was glad of that. There'd been a lot they'd just let go, or had swept under the carpet or had just avoided talking about that had needed to be addressed. He'd been angry at the time for a lot of reasons, and hurt by what he'd felt was deliberate cruelty. But since then, Jim had proven in so many ways that he, too, valued their friendship, their partnership, deeply. "I guess I have," he finally replied. With a small smile, he added, "But it'll be a good long time before I offer you the chance to test me again."

"That's hardly fair," Jim complained.

"That's the deal," Blair retorted, and took a long swallow of beer.

Jim grimaced, as if he wasn't happy about it, but then he said, "Okay, fine; you get to test me, but I don't get to test you. But, if I can't test you, then I should at least have the right to ask questions and expect answers."

Blair frowned, not sure what Jim was getting at. "I don't know what you mean," he replied uncertainly. "What questions?"

"Well, all kinds of questions that will help me get to know the man I'm partnered with, about his life and what's important to him. Because what's important to him is important to me. Questions like," Jim drawled, and leaned back in his chair, obviously getting comfortable as if he expected a good, long answer, "just how old were you when you fell out of Mrs. Danbush's tree? And what were you doing up in that tree in the first place?"

Blair smiled slowly. It might have been a long time coming, but he was deeply pleased that Jim wanted to know about his life just because he was interested. "I was seven," he began, and he, too, got comfortable because, well, it was a long story that involved a strong wind, a kite, a cat and quite a few firemen. Jim grinned and settled back to listen.

Finis

What About Now?
sung by Daughtry

Shadows fill an empty heart
As love is fading
From all the things that we are
But are not saying.
Can we see beyond the scars
And make it to the dawn?

Change the colors of the sky.
And open up to
The ways you made me feel alive,
The ways I loved you.
For all the things that never died,
To make it through the night,
Love will find you.

What about now?
What about today?
What if you're making me all that I was meant to be?
What if our love never went away?
What if it's lost behind words we could never find?
Baby, before it's too late,
What about now?

The sun is breaking in your eyes
To start a new day.
This broken heart can still survive
With a touch of your grace.
Shadows fade into the light.
I am by your side,
Where love will find you.

What about now?
What about today?
What if you're making me all that I was meant to be?
What if our love, it never went away?
What if it's lost behind words we could never find?
Baby, before it's too late,
What about now?

Now that we're here,
Now that we've come this far,
Just hold on.
There is nothing to fear,
For I am right beside you.
For all my life,
I am yours.

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