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.

Author's Notes: To Karen... thanks for the winning bid in the Moonridge auction and for letting me post this so soon after its completion. And, of course, to the amazing animals that Moonridge is all about.

I took one route to solving the TSbyBS problem when I wrote the Perception series of stories. This story never began as an ep-related piece, but as so often happens, the muses had other ideas. Eventually, it turned into a 'what might have been' story that addresses the question - did TSbyBS have to happen at all?

Supportive feedback always welcome.

Obsession

by JET

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

Mournful notes slipped through the night on an indigo breeze, a musical reflection of the cold, damp night. Streetlamps shone dimly on the damp pavement as a drunk staggered past the Club Cascade. A half hour from closing time, only a few listeners remained. The blues, a smoky jazz club, and a winter rain. A match made, if not in heaven, then in the soul of a city.

He was one of those people for whom it's nearly impossible to determine an age. 'Stick', they called him. Probably short for 'Broomstick', although nobody at the club remembered for certain. Stick had worked the jazz joint for as long as anyone remembered. That was at least twenty years, most agreed. Had to be getting on up in years, but still able to carry out his simple duties: help bus tables if the club was short of help, load the dishwasher, sweep the floors, take out the trash.

It was the latter duty that Stick was performing on that chilly, rainy night. Worn brown shoes shuffled through debris as Stick approached the filthy green dumpster halfway down the alleyway. A black trashbag slung over one shoulder, head down to avoid the drizzle, Stick muttered, "Sure is cold for near 'bout June...sure is. Gotta go over to the Salvation Army and get me some new gloves. It's..."

Stick froze in his tracks, staring down with widening eyes. He frowned then kicked at the form on the ground with one worn shoe. "Hey, Mister? You okay?"

No response. Stick's eyes narrowed as he puzzled out the possibilities. He'd seen a lot in his time, more drunks passed out in alleyways than he could count. This guy didn't appear to be drunk, however. Too still. No empty lying drained and abandoned nearby.

Once more, Stick prodded the figure, harder this time, with enough force to roll the still man partially to one side.

And reveal his blue lips and wide, staring eyes.

"Mercy!" Stick jumped back, dropping the garbage bag. It fell hard, spilling its contents to mingle with the rest of the garbage already littering the alley. Mouth agape, Stick backed slowly away from the body. Three paces later, he whirled and shuffled as fast as his old legs would carry him back to the club.

"Somebody! Call 911! Call the Police! We got a dead body in the alley!"

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

Captain Simon Banks stared down at the body and sighed heavily. Damn. Another young man dead in an alley. For an instant, he pictured his son Daryl lying in this man's place. The thought sickened him. He sent up a quick prayer that Daryl would live up to his father's expectations. That his future would consist of college and a good career instead of an early end in some dark, dirty alleyway. Probably exactly what this boy's father had dreamed for him as well, a long time ago.

So much for dreams come true.

"Simon?"

"Yeah, Jim. Looks like we may have another one."

"I got here as soon as I could. I was already in bed."

Banks glanced down at his watch. Half past one. No wonder Ellison had been asleep. "I got the call about midnight. One of the kitchen workers found him while taking out the trash. Our guys are interviewing the few patrons still in the club and the help now, but if this one's like the first two, nobody saw or heard a thing."

Detective Jim Ellison knelt beside the body. Simon watched Jim carefully. It still fascinated him to watch the Sentinel at work. He understood the concept of Jim's heightened senses at one level. At another, the whole idea mystified him, and Simon Banks generally disliked anything he couldn't completely understand. Still, he was grateful for Ellison and his hocus-pocus Sentinel abilities. They'd given his Major Crimes unit the best arrest and conviction rate in the city.

"Where's your shadow?"

Jim's shoulders immediately tensed. "At home. In bed. I was able to slip out without him hearing me." Jim gently rolled the body over and examined the dead man's back.

No explanation necessary. Ellison didn't want Blair Sandburg, his roommate, best friend, and Guide to Jim's Sentinel, anywhere near this case. The reason was immediately clear to Banks. As Jim continued combing the body for trace evidence others might miss, Simon stared down sadly at the dead young man.

Curly dark brown hair, cut to shoulder length...slim and not too tall...late twenties to early thirties...blue eyes... glasses...a sensual mouth...

Just like the two others who had preceded him in death.

All three victims had been the very image of Blair Sandburg. Not mirror images or identical twins, of course, but the resemblance was uncanny. Simon shook off the sudden chill which he recognized had nothing to do with the night air. "You can't keep him away from this case forever," he said quietly.

"I can damn well try." Jim brushed sensitive fingertips across the tips of the dead man's fingers. "Callouses on his left hand. He was a guitar player. Like the first two victims."

A moment later, Jim stood up, holding a small object in his gloved hand. "Here it is. Just like the others. That and the guitar string wrapped around the throat plus the multiple stab wounds..." Jim didn't complete the thought, but it wasn't necessary. Simon had already drawn the same conclusion.

Simon pulled an evidence bag from the pocket of his overcoat, watching as Jim dropped the triangular-shaped object inside. "Same make?"

"Exactly. A custom guitar pick carved from fossilized walrus ivory with an indented grip. An expensive pick and very unique."

"Damn." Simon sealed the bag and jerked his head toward the club. "Let's go see what, if anything, they've uncovered inside. Then we'll resume the investigation in the morning after the M.E. and the Crime Scene Unit have done their thing. With any luck, we'll know who this guy is by morning."

It appeared to be undeniable. All the facts pointed to this being their third victim.

Cascade had a serial killer on the prowl.

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

Jim studied the evidentiary photos laid out across Simon's conference table. So much connecting the three murders.

And precious little to connect the victims with their killer.

Or killers.

Jim growled in frustration. The killer left only what he wanted them to know.

The guitar picks - obviously left with the bodies as a message.

But what were they meant to say?

Rafe had been assigned the task of trying to track down the maker. So far, he'd been unsuccessful.

The cause of death in all three cases had been from the multiple stab wounds, according to the coroner's reports. The victims had been drugged to lessen their resistance. Traces of sedatives, along with the remnants of their final meals and chocolate, had been found in their systems. The metal strings cutting deeply into the victims' necks had been applied post-mortem.

Another message, thus far indecipherable.

Did the killer hate music?

Guitars and guitarists?

Or musicians in general?

He'd always disliked having more questions than answers. It made Jim uneasy, as though something was waiting. For him. Waiting to catch him off-guard before it attacked. Something that threatened to rob him of those things he valued most. His sense of power and control.

Or worse.

So engrossed was Jim in pondering the case that he didn't hear the familiar voice until it came from directly behind him. He hurried to shove the detailed photographs back into their file, but even as he did, he knew it was already too late.

"Jim? Hey, man, what's going on?" Blair Sandburg dumped his backpack on the floor by the long mahogany table and peered over his partner's shoulder. "You were already gone when I woke up and..."

Blair's eyes locked onto a photo of their latest victim. Without a word, he grabbed the file and spilled the contents on the table. Shuffling through the pile of pictures, he lined up shots of the three victims side by side and gazed at them in silence.

Finally, he looked up at Jim and asked accusingly, "When the hell were you going to tell me?"

When the truth was too hard, there was always denial. "What?" Jim spread his hands, palms up, and hoped the innocence in his voice was convincing enough to pacify his friend.

Blair strode to the door and shut it forcefully. "Don't give me that crap, Ellison!" He picked up one of the photos and waved it at Jim. "Look at 'em, man! They're me!" Sliding into one of the conference chairs, Blair ordered, "I want it all. Now. Who are these men? How were they killed? And why?"

The intensity in the fiery eyes left no room to hedge or argue. Accepting his defeat, Jim perched on the edge of the table and met his partner's eyes. Blair deserved the truth. He'd earned that much respect from Jim. He'd just hoped to wrap this one up quickly enough to keep Sandburg out of it.

To protect him.

The sentinel's own personal Prime Directive, Jim mused. Something he'd accepted a long time ago. A trust he hoped never to violate.

Ever again.

Quietly, Ellison shared everything they knew about the case. It wasn't much, really. Not in the grand scheme of things. They still had a long way to go to solve this one, and Jim realized in the telling that he'd only been fooling himself. No way could he have kept this one away from Blair for very long.

"And you weren't going to tell me." It wasn't a question but a flat statement of fact.

Jim shrugged. Any explanation was bound to sound lame. He was spared by Simon's entrance from the bullpen.

The captain's eyes cut to Jim. "He knows."

"Yeah," Blair replied. "I know. Jim just briefed me on the cases. Sounds like quite a few parallels that might add to a profile of the killer."

Matter-of-fact. Professional. Whatever anger Blair had felt earlier seemed to have evaporated. For that, Jim was grateful. Now maybe they could move on with solving the case and catching whatever bastard had killed these three talented young men.

Apparently Simon wasn't ready to move on quite yet. His dark brown eyes fixed steadily on Blair, he asked quietly, "You okay on this one, Sandburg? It's not a problem if you want to take a rain check..."

"I'm fine." The brilliant smile flashed. "Hey, it's not my fault this head case has no better sense than to kill good-looking guys like them." As quickly as it appeared, the good-natured smile vanished. "We just need to make sure he doesn't have a chance to make it four victims. I'm fine, Simon. Really."

Jim waited for his boss to question him. After all, Blair wasn't a cop, just a civilian observer. Surely he'd have some say-so in whether or not Blair was to work this case.

Obviously not. Simon never even glanced at him, just moved on to discuss more of the fundamentals of the case with Blair. When they got to the details of the autopsy, Blair quickly waved his hand. "Don't need to know all that. Way too much info, man. Jim can handle the gory details for both of us, don't you think?"

With an understanding smile, Simon closed the autopsy file and continued briefing the younger man on the crime scene evidence and witness statements, never once questioning Blair's request to skip the autopsy evidence.

When the hell had Sandburg earned so much of Banks' trust? It had become obvious over the last couple of years that Blair was considered a part of Major Crimes, as much a member of the squad as any of the detectives assigned there. The silent decision Simon had just made confirmed it, and Jim felt a mixture of pride and chagrin. Pride that the young man who'd grown to mean so much to him obviously meant a lot to the department as well. Blair had earned that respect.

Yet it bothered Jim that his captain was putting Blair's life on the line without consulting him. This wasn't just an ordinary case, if there even was such a thing. These victims bore an uncanny resemblance to Sandburg, and that had Jim more than a little concerned.

Still, the decision rested with Simon, and Jim knew better than most how to follow the chain of command. He'd just have to be extra careful on this one, keep Blair a bit closer.

Work even harder to protect his Guide.

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

That night, the loft was quieter than usual. Both friends went about their evening routines - preparing dinner, cleaning up afterwards, tending to a load of laundry in the basement. Once those chores were done, Blair settled down in a chair with his laptop, while on the couch, Jim selected a movie to watch on TV.

The movie was an old Jackie Chan that he'd seen several times before, but it was good. Not good enough to hold his attention, however. With no conscious effort, Jim found himself monitoring his Guide.

If Blair was working, he wasn't putting much effort into it.

Jim made a silent bet with himself on exactly how long it would take Blair to initiate a conversation about whatever was on his mind.

Before the first car chase was over, Blair said, "Hey, Jim? You watching that?"

The corners of Jim's mouth twitched as he hit the mute button on the remote, but he feigned exasperation. "Would I have had the thing on if I hadn't been watching the movie, Chief?"

"Well, I don't know," Blair drawled. "You've been known to entertain yourself in some pretty unusual ways, man."

Jim chunked a throw pillow in Blair's direction, but the younger man deftly blocked it. "What?"

Ellison shook his head, the grin he'd tried to hide at last breaking free.

Blair set the laptop on the floor beside his chair. He studied Jim for a long moment, but Ellison couldn't quite read the look in the familiar blue eyes. Something was bugging the kid, that was certain.

"I've been thinking about the case," Blair said at last. "We're really no closer to a significant lead, are we?"

The case. Jim's relief was almost palatable. Why was it whenever Sandburg felt the need to talk, he automatically assumed it was something major? Like Blair had been offered a position in some research study on some unmapped island in the Pacific. Or he was just fed up with all the crap that came with being Jim Ellison's partner, friend, and roommate and had decided to abandon the roller coaster for a normal life. He could conjure up at least a hundred different scenarios - none of them good.

He'd dodged that particular bullet once more time. But for how long?

He pushed the thought away and focused on the question Blair had posed.

"Not really," Jim mused, watching his friend. There was still something there in Blair's eyes, something he couldn't quite peg. "No one at any of the jazz clubs saw anything particularly useful. No weird groupies hanging around these guys. None of their friends or lovers knew of anything in their pasts that might have led to their murders. Just three jazz guitarists playing at different clubs around the city. Killed elsewhere and their bodies dumped at a different club from where they were taken. No fingerprints, no usable DNA samples..."

Damn this case.

"So we're pretty much at a dead end."

What the hell was Sandburg leading up to? Jim had the undeniable impression that he was being set up very adroitly by Sandburg, the acknowledged master of words and obfuscation.

"I wouldn't say that," he countered, trying his best to figure where Blair was leading him. "We're still running leads, interviewing people... you know the drill. We'll get the bastard."

"I know that," Blair concurred. "The question is - when? After he kills again? Twice more? Sure, he'll slip up. They all do. But what if we could catch him sooner rather than later? Wouldn't that be worth taking a small calculated risk?"

Blair's blue eyes peered at Jim as he brushed his curly chestnut hair back casually with one hand. In his oversized sweatshirt and faded jeans, damned if the kid didn't look close to half his age, and the Sentinel felt a sudden wave of what he could only identify as a powerful protective instinct. And in that instant, he knew exactly what scheme Blair had concocted.

"No," Jim said flatly. "Absolutely not."

"What? I haven't even told you what I was thinking." Blair stared at Jim, wide-eyed, his voice tinged with hurt.

The innocent look didn't work.

Not this time.

"You're not going undercover. No way. Forget it." Suddenly unable to sit still, Jim paced over to the kitchen, pulling a beer from the refrigerator. He chugged a few swallows, then he moved to the broad expanse of windows looking out over the city. It was raining. Again. That was appropriate. The weather matched his dark mood.

"It makes perfect sense, Jim. I mean, look at the resemblance. It's the start of summer break, so I've got the time. You know I decided not to teach this summer so I could work on my dissertation. Anyway, all three were guitarists. I play well enough to hold my own. You know that. I can fit in with the crowd that hangs in the jazz club, man, and with the musicians. And after nearly four years hanging around with you, I can handle myself."

Jim leaned his left shoulder against the glass and stared at the bottle in his hand. Sandburg's points were all good. He couldn't deny that. But that wasn't the bottom line. "You're..."

"Don't give me the 'you're not a cop, Sandburg' line, Jim. Simon's sent me in undercover before, and I'm still here."

"Never into a situation this dangerous. Not like this. I wouldn't be with you. You'd be going in alone, Blair." The thought chilled him. No. This wasn't going to happen.

It was too soon. The memory of a sparkling fountain on a peaceful morning less than a year before hung heavy between them. Words were not necessary. Blair understood perfectly.

"I won't be alone, man." Blair's reply was soft, with a gentle rebuke lying just beneath the surface. "You'll be with me the whole time. Listening. Watching my back. Doing what you do best - being a Sentinel. My Sentinel," he added in a whisper.

Jim drew a deep breath and shook his head helplessly. If Sandburg went to Simon with this, he had little doubt that the captain would approve the plan, with or without Jim's support. The case was that important, that volatile. The press had been hot on the story since the second murder, making the same obvious connections that the detectives had made. There was a serial killer on the loose in the city. Now with a third murder...

Jim didn't want to imagine Simon's reaction to the stories that would keep growing harsher and more critical of the police.

Yes, Simon would weigh the risks and the possible benefits and would buy into Blair's scheme, with or without Jim. They could use a wire instead of Sentinel hearing. Plant a man or two inside the club for visual surveillance.

And if he protested too loudly, Simon would not hesitate to bar Jim from being anywhere near his Guide during a tremendously risky operation.

As much as Jim hated to admit it, Sandburg could handle it without him.

"Another man doesn't have to die, Jim. We can do this. It may be the only way to prevent another murder."

Hit me where it hurts, Chief. Protect the tribe, right? What about protecting the Guide, kid? Do you ever think about that? About the hell I'd find myself trapped in if I ever lost you? I've had a horrible preview of that hell, and it's not an experience I ever want to repeat.

But those were emotions he could not voice.

He turned toward Blair, his voice rough. "You swear you'll listen to me? Obey my orders in the field? Not argue with me if I tell you to get out? That you'll tell me everything, no matter how inconsequential it might seem to you?" A few long strides and Jim was standing in front of Blair.

He stared down at the younger man. "You make me those promises, or I'll find some way to convince Simon not to let you do this. I'll have your observer status revoked. I mean it, Blair. This is too damned important..." Jim hesitated before adding, "You're too important..."

Sandburg's eyes warmed with affection and understanding. He stood up, gripping Jim's biceps firmly as he gazed into Jim's eyes. "I promise, Jim. I'll be careful. I'll listen to you and follow your lead. I'll tell you everything." With a quick wink and a smile, he added, "I don't want to get hurt, man. Death is just so majorly not one of my favorite experiences, y'know?"

Jim nodded, not trusting himself to speak for a moment. In place of words, he pulled his friend into a quick hug. "You remember those promises, Chief," he whispered at last into the soft curls that tickled his face. "I'm holding you to them."

As he watched Blair gather up his laptop and settle down once again to work, Jim tried to ignore his undeniable sense of foreboding, but he didn't have much success.

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

"And you're telling me you approve of this?" Simon stared at Jim incredulously.

Jim glanced at Sandburg, waiting patiently from his favorite perch on the corner of Simon's conference table. "Not approve, exactly, sir. Let's just say that I've... been persuaded that it's the lesser of evils."

"Just when I think I have you two figured out," Simon muttered, tapping his fingers absently on his desktop. He leaned back in his chair. "It goes against everything my instincts tell me. Sandburg's not a trained officer. You need him with you while you're focusing in case of a zone."

"But I'm the perfect one to put on the inside," Blair argued. "I fit the profile. I know the scene. I can..."

"You're preaching to the converted, Sandburg," Simon snapped impatiently. "I said I don't like it. But you're right. We're too short on leads and too long on bad press and heat from the powers-that-be to dismiss the idea."

Jim last hope fizzled out like the final sparkler on the Fourth of July.

"You'll be his primary back-up, Jim," the captain continued. "I can ride shotgun with you, be your back up in case something goes screwy with your senses."

"I'll be fine." To his own ears, the words sounded too clipped, too distant.

Simon eyed him. "You know that if anything happens to Sandburg, our careers might just go down the drain. A civilian... lost... on an undercover assignment... " Simon visibly shuddered. "I don't even want to think what the mayor and the brass would do to us."

The words slipped out unbidden before Jim could stop them. "Wouldn't amount to a damned thing compared to what losing Sandburg would do to me. If you okay this scheme, believe me, I'll watch out for him." A moment later, he felt a firm pressure against his back.

Blair...

"Jim, if you're not comfortable with this," Simon stated flatly, "we don't do it. Tell me now before this goes any further. Are you in or out?"

Relief flooded his soul. There was a way out after all! Simon was leaving the decision in his hands. All he had to do was pull the plug.

Jim glanced at Blair, and the look in his friend's eyes stopped the words cold in his throat. Their gazes held firm, and rapid-fire communication spun between them in complete silence.

Do you know what you're asking? Of all the drives I feel, all my instincts, the strongest is to protect you. This will put you just far enough away from me to risk losing you. I don't know if I can handle that, Chief. Not again... not again.

I want this, man. I've worked so hard to be a part of this. A real part. I want to help stop this maniac. I want to prove that I'm not just your shadow. Trust me, Jim. Please...

Neither man spoke, and their eyes never faltered as the decision was made. His emotional guard lowered, Jim recognized the truth and the need in his best friend's soul and answered the plea. Nodding slowly, his eyes still locked with Blair's, he agreed quietly, "All right, Simon. We'll do it."

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

The plans were put in place much faster than Blair had imagined they ever could be. The members of the jazz trio in which the last victim had played were glad to admit Blair to their ranks - temporarily - in order to lure the murderer into a trap. For the couple of days it took to make arrangements, Blair threw himself into practice time on the Jimi Hendrix Strat Naomi had given him. Not exactly a jazz guitar, but it was all he had. He was nervous about using it at the gigs, too. After all, the Hendrix signature made it significantly more valuable than the instrument would have been otherwise.

It was amazing how quickly it all came back. Sitting on the couch in the loft, Blair grinned as he ran his hand lightly over the strings, remembering his undergrad days. It was a wonder he'd ever graduated. Days spent in class. Afternoons rushing by as he hurriedly researched or wrote papers. Late nights in the local clubs playing for tips and whatever the management was willing to pay young non-professionals for their time and talent.

He didn't want to admit it to Jim, but he was actually looking forward to this assignment. Not because he'd be setting himself up as bait for a deranged killer. He'd never had that sort of death wish. But he was looking forward to pursuing a life-long dream, if only for a little while. At least for the duration of their little sting operation, he would be a working musician.

A few minutes later, the loft door opened, and Jim entered, carrying a black guitar case. Blair looked up, his head cocked to one side. "You planning to join me on stage, man?" He was only half joking. He wouldn't put it past Jim to try to work his way closer to Blair during the undercover investigation. The only problem with that theory was that Jim couldn't even play a D chord.

The look Jim shot him confirmed his doubts about the Sentinel's musical talents. "Not for me, Chief. It's for you."

Blair placed the Strat carefully back into its case and met Jim in the kitchen. "Me? But I've got a guitar..."

"Not a jazz one, if I understand Simon's explanation correctly. He says for jazz you need an..." Jim's eyes squinted as he recalled the unfamiliar terminology. "An archtop... is that it?"

Blair eyed the case eagerly. "Yeah, that's it. That's the sound, all right, but where...?"

Jim looked suddenly embarrassed as he shrugged. "I happened to be passing by Capital Music at lunch with Simon. This was in the window. It's used, but the guy said it's a good instrument. Simon seems to know something about all this, and he agreed, so..."

Touching the case, Blair looked up at Jim. "But it must have been pretty expensive, even used. Why...?"

"You have to look the part, Chief, to pull this one off. If this helps your cover, it's a small price to pay." Jim grinned and batted the back of Sandburg's head. "Go on. Open it up. See if it's what you need."

His fingers almost shaking with excitement, Blair flipped open the catches on the black case and slowly opened the top. His mouth dropped in astonishment. "Oh, man..."

Inside lay a shining archtop, constructed of gleaming tiger maple with a deep, rich sunburst finish. The tuning keys and other fittings were gold, and abalone inlay shone on the fingerboard. "Jim... it's gorgeous. I can't take this, though, man. It's too much."

"Hey, you don't even know if it sounds good," Jim pointed out with an understanding smile. "Where's your amp?"

A few minutes later, the guitar was plugged in, and Blair sat down on the couch, fingering the glowing wood reverently. Looking up at Jim, he smiled, then began to play.

Warm, rich tones wove around the loft, wrapping them in a cocoon of music. Blair's fingers worked their way up and down the neck, deftly blending chords and melody into a tapestry of sound. The wood felt alive beneath his fingers. He'd never played an instrument this good, and the experience delighted him in the deepest recesses of his soul. But even more touching was the message behind the guitar.

Jim had cared enough to buy this wonderful instrument for him. His Sentinel really would do whatever it took to keep him safe.

Tears filled Blair's eyes as he played, and he kept his head lowered to hide the wetness. The tone of the notes, the beauty of the wood, and the fine craftsmanship of the instrument combined with the emotions Jim's gift had stirred was just too much. Regardless of the outcome of the undercover operation, it was worth it.

This moment was worth it all.

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

The Blue Note Club was one of the top jazz joints in Cascade, and the idea of headlining there four times weekly was finally sinking in. Blair's stomach felt packed with proverbial butterflies. In contrast, the three other members of Backbeat, the jazz quartet Blair was joining, appeared so relaxed, as though they'd been doing this forever.

And they probably have. Blair grinned at the thought of Benny, Vince, and Ricardo gigging at the tender age of four or five. All three men were joking around as they tuned their instruments, set up the amps and drums, and made sure the fifth member of the group, the tip jar, was displayed in a prominent location.

Benny, the drummer, caught Blair's eye as he worked to set up his drum set. "You okay? You look a little green around the gills."

Blair laughed self-consciously. "Just a little stage-fright. You gotta remember, this is my first gig in a long time, man."

Ricardo blew a quick fanfare on his trumpet, then he laughed. "Don't worry, Blair. We've all had the first gig jitters."

"You're cool," Vince, the bass player chimed in. "We've heard you play in practice, and trust me, we wouldn't have bought into this scheme if we didn't think you could handle the music end of things. Just relax, get into the groove and enjoy."

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

An hour later, Blair was doing exactly that. He'd forgotten how much fun making music could be. He found himself forgetting his surroundings at times, becoming so lost in the music that he almost lost touch with the noisy environment around him. Catching himself whenever it happened, Blair forced himself back to alertness. He wasn't there to enjoy himself. He was there to catch a killer.

Jim sat alone at a back table. They'd discussed it earlier. He couldn't afford to be seen at the club every night, but Jim had insisted on being there the first night. After that, he'd monitor Blair from his truck in the parking lot, perhaps dropping in infrequently enough to avoid detection.

They both hoped it wouldn't be necessary to sustain the ruse for that long.

As Ricardo took his solo, Blair scanned the crowd, trying not to look too interested in the sea of faces before him. Most tables were occupied by couples or groups of friends. According to the Major Crimes profiler, they were after a loner, someone fixated on the musicians he later massacred. It didn't seem likely that someone enjoying a night out on the town with friends would later morph into a vicious killer.

So Blair focused his attention on the less crowded tables.

There weren't many.

One was toward the back, occupied by a couple of college-aged kids. They'd already had too many beers, laughing too loudly, once spilling one of their mugs on the table.

But Blair didn't think they were the ones. Too wrapped up in themselves, for one thing.

He moved his focus on. Several more couples, both straight and gay... an attractive brunette to his right and back, an elderly couple toasting what he concluded was another anniversary together...a thin waiter, apparently Hispanic, stood in the back of the room, watching him play. The dark eyes were fixed on his hands, studying him intently.

Maybe...

Blair resumed surveying the room.

Then his eyes stopped again. There... third table back from the stage. A middle-aged guy, well over six and a half feet tall and slightly graying at the temples, not drinking at all, just sipping a Coke and staring at the musicians on-stage.

Could he be the one? Blair felt a chill run up his spine.

Under his breath, Blair whispered, "Jim? Big guy sitting alone, third table from the stage. When I say big, I mean really big. And the waiter in the back..." Glancing toward his friend, he saw Jim's head incline slightly in acknowledgement.

Ricardo's solo ended, and for the next several minutes, Blair focused again on the music.

A few minutes later, it was time for Blair's first solo, and he felt the old familiar rush of anticipation. The song was 'Moonlight in Vermont', a request from the elderly couple with the anniversary. Ricardo, the leader of the quartet, winked and nodded, giving Blair the go-ahead.

It was a quiet tune with a flowing, beautiful melody. Not a place for impressive chops. The secret here was to put it all on the line, to let his inner-self speak through the notes of the classic melody. Not an easy thing to do, allowing everything inside him to come to the surface, undisguised and exposed, but that was exactly what the song called for.

Blair closed his eyes, leaning over his guitar, his fingers light on the strings. In his mind, he remembered the mountains of Vermont so many years ago, as he'd first seen them with Naomi. It had been during the autumn and in his entire life, Blair had never experience such color. As he played, his surroundings faded, and once again, he was experiencing fall in New England for the first time.

Blair played the deep scarlets in his bass notes, letting them ring with depth of color. The yellows became the soaring trebles, shimmering in the air, ringing with intensity. The reincarnation of the pure golds was in the mid-range, rich, full, and mellow. He played softly, remembering the touch of the breeze on his young face, and he allowed the crescendos to reflect his memories of the sound of the rainbow-leaves rustling in the wind.

Eventually, inevitably, the chord progression led him out of his solo and back to the world and the applause, more than merely polite, that greeted his return to reality. Opening his eyes, he found Jim's face. The pride reflected in the clear blue eyes meant more than all the applause, all the murmured approval from his band-mates.

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

The evening ended quietly shortly after 1:00 am. The musicians quickly packed their gear, collected their pay, divided their tips, and headed for home. Blair stood at the door of the club, vacant now except for the clean-up crew, and smiled softly. It had been a good night. He'd played well, earning the respect of the other musicians and of the audience. As patrons drifted out, several had come up to Blair, offering their appreciation of his playing. It had felt good, that respect, coming as it did in an entirely different field from his career in anthropology. He was accustomed to doing well academically. The formula there was simple - study hard enough, work hard enough, and success was pretty much guaranteed. Tonight had been different. Tonight he'd earned respect based on his talent and his ability to take a risk, to allow his emotions, his heart, and soul to shine through the music.

Closing the door with a last look back at the empty stage, Blair headed home.

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

Jim was already home by the time Blair arrived. The loft was dark, except for several Sentinel-friendly candles flickering around the living room.

Jim lighted my candles. Wonders never cease!

Blair eased his case down behind the couch. Following the trail of flickering light, he spied Jim's broad shoulders outlined against the skyline of the city. Ellison was leaning on the railing, staring out at the night sky. Blair stopped by the kitchen, lured by the aroma of his favorite herbal tea. Pouring a cup, he added a bit of lemon then sipped it gratefully. It soothed and warmed his throat, rough after a night of breathing smoky air.

Jim didn't turn around when Blair stepped out onto the balcony, pulling the sliding door closed behind him. It was late, and he missed the normal sounds of the city. Cascade was sleeping, the busy hustle and bustle dormant as its residents slept. Blair slipped in beside Jim and took in the quiet scene before them. Streetlights held fast to their green or red with no cars to force them to change. He could almost believe they were the only two souls inhabiting Cascade on this peaceful night.

Could almost believe that the violence out there was nothing more than the shattered remnants of a nightmare.

But he knew better.

The violence was real, as was the nightmare, and the most he could hope for was that this peaceful interlude might linger a little longer.

As if sensing his mood, Jim shifted so their arms were touching, a gentle and reassuring pressure, reminding him that no matter how frightening the nightmare, he was not alone.

He wasn't alone.

Blair drew a deep breath, wondering if Jim understood what a miracle that was. His life with Naomi had been one long adventure, never boring, never allowing him the luxury of complacency. It wasn't easy to make friends when you never stayed in one place very long. There'd been a succession of cousins, but the time spent with them was usually brief. Naomi had been his solace, but even with all her good intentions, she wasn't the same as having a best friend.

When he was still in his teens, he'd been admitted to Rainier, and the loneliness had begun in earnest. He wasn't a part of the freshman class, not really. He was too young. Although he was taking upper level courses, he certainly wasn't an upper-classman, either. Just as he'd been his entire life, Blair found himself on the outside, looking in and yearning to be included. To belong somewhere... to belong to someone.

And now there was Jim.

He wasn't alone.

Blair's exhalation shuddered slightly, and he felt Jim's concerned eyes on him. Sloughing off his momentary melancholy, Blair let the miracle that was their friendship fill his heart... fill the emptiness the old memories had brought. He smiled up at Jim and marveled as the concern in the older man's blue eyes evaporated.

Jim needed to know he was all right. Jim cared about his physical safety and about his emotional safety as well.

In the distance, the clock on a church tower chimed the hour. Two a.m.

It was late and another day awaited them.

Jim draped one long arm over his shoulders and gently steered him toward the door. Blair leaned into his friend, grateful for the warmth Jim provided his body and his soul.

At last, he belonged.

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

The next morning in Simon's office, they picked through the possible suspects, carefully examining every shred of evidence. Blair sat back, listening intently to the evidence gathered by the other members of Major Crimes while he and Jim had been busy with their undercover assignment. Jim had been silent most of the morning, his breakfast conversation limited to a few grunts and one 'pass the syrup, please'. Blair had decided to leave him alone. For now. Sometimes with Jim, it was best to lay back and observe, to try to get a handle on whatever was bugging the man, before pressing him to talk.

Henri started them off with a report on the custom picks found beside each body.

"They're made by a guy up in Alaska. He uses fossilized ivory, entirely legal. Got a pretty good mail-order and internet business going. Problem is, he sells these things world-wide, and there's no way to match up which customer bought which picks. He's getting together info on everyone who purchased several picks, 'cause our guy's obviously a repeat customer. Right now, that's all I've got there."

Rafe tossed a folder on the table. "Got an ID on your loner at the third table. His name's Bernard Hughey, originally from New York State. He has a stalking conviction involving an old girlfriend, but there was no indication of anything violent. Seems she changed her mind and broke up with him. Our boy Bernard did the phone call-message machine thing, and she spotted him tailing her a couple of times. That's when she took out the restraining order. He was caught in the hallway outside her apartment, and she pressed charges. He was convicted and served a little more than a year. After his release, he moved to Cascade."

"Aren't we always the lucky ones?" Henri muttered beneath his breath.

Rafe grinned at his partner. "No problems since arriving here. At least, none that we know of, anyway."

Banks nodded. "You never know when a stalker can turn violent, but I don't see this guy going from a hung-up boyfriend to a triple serial killer. We can't rule him out, though. He's a possible."

"A definite possible," Jim muttered, staring at the photo. The look in his eyes sent a chill through Blair. He'd be sure to keep a close eye on Bernard Hughey.

"I turned up something on one of the waiters," Joel said, sliding a file over to Simon.

Blair leaned over and recognized the slim Hispanic waiter from the night before. "He was watching me pretty closely, too," Blair interjected. "Like Bernard. Remember, Jim?"

Ellison nodded and slipped the file across the table as Joel continued.

"Name's Eduardo Sanchez. Came to Cascade legally from Puerto Rico five years ago. Normally, I wouldn't have looked at him twice, except for what I learned from authorities in Puerto Rico."

Light flared in Ellison's eyes. "What?"

Blair recognized the tightness in his friend's voice and saw the tense muscles in his jaw. Casually, he stretched and let one hand brush Jim's back. "It's okay," he murmured, the words not audible to anyone other than the Sentinel. Jim drew a long breath and some of the tension left his face.

Joel didn't appear to have noticed the interaction between Sentinel and Guide. "He has had no legal problems since arriving here, but something told me to check out his history back home." The former bomb-squad captain stopped, clearing his throat. "A year before he immigrated here, Sanchez' girlfriend disappeared. No trace was ever found of her. He was the prime suspect, but they couldn't pin it on him."

"That's interesting," Simon mused. "I..."

Joel interrupted. "That's not all." He looked meaningfully at Blair, then at Jim. "She vanished from a nightclub in San Juan. A late-night place with live music."

After a long moment of silence, Simon cleared his throat. "So we have two viable suspects. So far. We've just gotten started, though. Remember that the crowds in these places can change from night to night. Our perp is probably making the rounds of the clubs, looking for the next likely victim. Could be he hasn't even spotted Sandburg yet. Let's see if Bernard returns to the club tonight, and we'll keep close tabs on Eduardo."

"Sandburg, you've got the best seat in the house. Keep scouting the crowd. Let Jim know if anyone else suspicious shows tonight. He'll call in the description, along with a tag number, when he spots them leaving the club. We can lift prints from the glasses these people use, if Jim can slip inside without attracting attention, and ID them that way, too." Simon's voice lost some of its seasoned professionalism. "I don't have to remind you to be careful, Blair. If you get a sense of anything - anything - going wrong, you let Jim know. Your wire will let him pick you up with no problem."

The last was for the benefit of Joel, Henri, and Rafe. Blair nodded. "I know. I'm being careful." He found Jim's eyes. "I promise."

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

By the end of the second week, Blair knew the regulars by sight.

And he knew them by name.

Other than the first possible perps identified, no other suspicious characters had turned up.

Blair's money was on Sanchez. The missing girlfriend, fleeing his homeland, and the way he'd taken to hovering around the band definitely sent up red flags.

Jim was leaning more toward Hughey, and he had a point. Stalkers often became more aggressive. More violent.

It might be either... or neither. It was entirely possible that their killer wasn't any of the club regulars or drop-ins they'd spotted thus far.

Tonight, Jim was outside, monitoring Blair with his Sentinel hearing. Near the end of their second set, Blair relaxed after his solo and scanned the crowd beneath lowered lids. Nobody he hadn't seen before. "Pretty much the same old, same old in here, Jim," he whispered. "During our break, I'll work the crowd a bit. Keep your ears open, man."

When the first break came, Blair heard his name called softly as he walked from the stage. Turning, he recognized a young Hispanic woman he'd seen around the club.

"I'm Mariah. Would you like a drink?"

Not seeing any other interesting leads, he shrugged. "Sure. Thanks"

They chatted for the quarter hour break, then Mariah made a quick excuse about getting home. Blair thanked her for the company, and he headed back to the stage. No progress made there, he decided. Mariah definitely didn't seem like a serial killer. Writing that break off as a waste of time, professionally speaking, Blair quickly lost himself again in the music.

During their second break, Blair made a quick trip to the men's room. The restrooms were located down a narrow, perpetually dark hallway. He kept his eyes up for fear of encountering some kind of creepy-crawly. "Place reminds me of the bug scene in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"," he said aloud, quite sure Jim would find the off-hand remark funny. After all, Jim didn't have to eat here.

On his way out, a looming figure blocked his path. Looking up, Blair recognized Bernard Hughey. "Uh... excuse me," he said, forcing a smile. Sure didn't want to antagonize this guy. Not only was he a good foot taller than Blair, he outweighed him by at least forty pounds. Probably played defensive end in high school. Maybe college.

A beefy arm blocked his way, planted firmly on the wall. "I need to talk to you. Now."

Blair swallowed hard. Sure hope you're getting this, man

The smile on Blair's face never wavered. Never let them see you sweat. "See, my break's now, and I gotta... I need to touch base with the drummer about the tempo of the next number, so..."

"This'll only take a second."

With some guys, you just can't say no.

"I been watching you. Watching you close. Real close."

Whoa, that so didn't sound good.

"Look, I really gotta go." Blair tried to maneuver beneath the arm, but Bernard just closed the space with a step toward the wall. "Hey..."

"You're a nervous one, aren't you?" Bernard grinned, revealing square white teeth.

Blair glanced behind the behemoth and saw Jim standing in the doorway. He breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his Blessed Protector. Then Bernard laughed.

"That chord progression you used on "Funny Valentine". What was the second chord you went to?"

Jim froze, waiting.

"Huh?" Blair stared up at Bernard.

"The second chord in your 'Valentine' solo. See, I play a little myself, and I'm trying to learn that chart. I liked your progression, and I was wondering... "

Jim slowly backed out of the doorway, leaving Bernard completely unaware that he was ever there.

The big man looked confused by Blair's relieved laughter.

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

By the next break, Bernard had moved on, and Blair had crossed him off his personal suspect list. He knew Jim wouldn't be as certain, but twenty minutes spent chatting with the big man, and Blair knew beyond a doubt that Bernard was nothing more than a would-be player, interested in picking Blair's brain, not ending his life.

That still left Eduardo.

And a very real possibility that the real culprit was still out there, lurking... waiting.

The attractive brunette Blair had seen the first night was back. She wasn't in enough to count as a regular, but at least hers was a familiar, friendly face, and he was growing tired of scouring the crowd for a malevolent countenance.

"Hi, I'm Blair," he greeted the young woman with a smile. "Mind if I sit down?"

She studied him cautiously. "I was about to leave, but..." A blinding smile greeted him, and Blair's breath caught. "Sure. Why not? You're in the band, aren't you?"

By the end of the last break of the night, they knew enough about each other to feel comfortable that a new friendship had been born. Her name was Misty Arnold, and she'd only lived in Cascade for a few months. She worked as a research specialist at the public library, a career that Blair immediately warmed to discussing. Misty's father had been a cop, killed in the line of duty when she was only six. Her mother had died a few years ago, and with her only sister living in Germany while serving in the Army, Misty was pretty much alone in the world. Her mother and father both instilled in her a love of music, and she got out to various jazz clubs around Cascade whenever she could. Blair judged that she was about his age, maybe a year or two younger, and her shoulder-length caramel hair and rich brown eyes certainly did nothing to dissuade his interest.

If they couldn't catch a killer on this operation, at least he'd met an interesting girl. He was grinning as he left the club with the promise that Misty would be back again the next night.

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

Jim wasn't nearly as thrilled, as he soon discovered. Blair walked into the loft in an exceptional mood, humming softly as he carefully set his guitar case behind the couch.

"Hey, man. I saw your taillights leaving the club parking lot. Sure glad my car didn't decide to have mechanical troubles tonight," Blair joked. He peered into the refrigerator, deciding finally on a cup of yogurt and an apple. "No action tonight. I didn't see anyone suspicious around."

Jim continued putting away clean dishes from the counter. "Not that you'd have noticed, Sandburg." His voice was flat, devoid of obvious emotion, but that wasn't unusual for Jim.

Blair glanced at him curiously as he poured water in the teapot to boil. "I had my eyes open, man, as always."

"I think your eyes were reserved for that girl, Sandburg. What was her name? Wendy?"

Ah, that was the problem. Jim thought he'd been neglecting his duties. Of course, Jim hadn't been inside. He didn't know how carefully Blair had kept surveying the crowd even as he chatted with Misty.

"Her name's Misty, Jim," he said carefully, "as I'm sure you know. And I was still watching the room. It was just that she's a nice girl, and I figured I might be less obvious - fit in better, y'know? - if I didn't just stand around watching the place all night."

"Well, you must have fit like a glove, kid, because when you weren't playing, all you were doing was hitting on this girl."

Blair swallowed hard against his anger. He leaned against the kitchen table and studied his partner. The broad shoulders were squared defensively. Jim's jaw muscle twitched like a cat having a bad dream. He took a long, cleansing breath. Jim only got like this when he felt on the verge of losing control or when his infamous fear response kicked in. This time, Blair had a feeling it was both.

Of course, he didn't remember what had happened at the fountain, just a few short months before. Simon and the others who'd been there had told him, though. Quietly, in hushed tones of awe, they'd described what they'd witnessed. The images called forth by their words were now so much a part of Blair's psyche, it was as if he'd been a witness to his own death.

Near-death.

Jim had been desperate, calling him back, pleading with Blair not to go. James Joseph Ellison, poster boy for all forms of control, self and otherwise, had lost it. To a man, they all confided that if Blair had died, they had feared for Jim's sanity, for his very life.

Blair had always known, intellectually, that the bond between Sentinel and Guide ran deep. What he had not quite grasped until the aftermath of that horrific day was the sheer power of that bond. It was a matter of survival, literally of life and death, that Sentinel and Guide remain together, stay connected. Jim had understood that truth in some primitive, feral way as he struggled to breathe life past the blue-tinged lips of his Guide.

The Sentinel would never forget that desperation, that horror, and he would fight like hell to avoid ever having to face it again.

Blair was working undercover in a very dangerous situation, so Jim had every right to be fearful for his Guide's life. He viewed Misty as a possible risk, a possible threat to Blair's safety, and Blair was going to have to understand that instinctive reaction.

"I'll be okay, man," he countered softly, refusing to rise to the bait the older man had thrown out. "I'm not forgetting the reason I'm doing this. I want to catch this psycho as badly as you do. Maybe even a little worse this time. I kinda have a personal thing about killers now, y'know. I am being careful, Jim."

Ellison was leaning heavily on the counter, staring down into the spotless sink. Even without Sentinel hearing, Blair could hear him fight to keep his breathing steady. Carefully coming up behind his friend, he rested his hand lightly on the small of Jim's back. "Trust me."

"I do trust you," Jim rasped, his struggle for control obvious in every muscle. "It's the rest of the world I have problems with, Chief."

That did it.

Blair wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. The world saw Jim as a pretty uncomplicated character. Everything cut and dry, black and white. Tears welled in Sandburg's eyes at the helplessness he heard in that uncharacteristic admission. Jim Ellison uncomplicated?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Ellison's waters ran as deep as any river, and even worse, they were often populated by dangerous, emotional icebergs. Tonight, Blair felt as though one of those icebergs had rammed him head on, and he was sinking fast.

"Well, the rest of the world doesn't count, does it? Not really." Taking a step closer, Blair rested his forehead on Jim's shoulder, suddenly too tired to think. Whatever words he had to offer sprang unbidden from the springs of pure instinct. "I'm being careful, man. You gotta trust that. Just like I have to trust that if things do go wrong, you'll be there to bail me out, like always. If that's not enough, then..."

They stood there for a long minute in silence, neither man moving to break either the physical contact or the emotional one. Outside, rain pattered softly on the roof, and the neighbor's door opened, then closed, with a muted thud. A dog barked in the alley, and on the stove, the tea water began to bubble.

Finally, Jim turned slowly. The haunted blue eyes startled Blair, for all trace of defensiveness had vanished. There was only the pure, naked vulnerability that always crouched deep and disguised within Jim, the vulnerability only Blair, and so few others, ever glimpsed. Silent as a stone Sentinel, Jim stood there, allowing himself to remain exposed and open to Blair, trusting his Guide to comprehend his innermost fears and his greatest weakness.

No one else sees this. I bet Carolyn never saw Jim this vulnerable. Oh, God, just help me live up to this responsibility. Don't let me fail. Please... I know you're scared, man. You weren't there for me at the fountain, and now you're so afraid you won't be there for me this time. Aw, Jim, you take so much responsibility on yourself. The whole world rests on those shoulders of yours, doesn't it? At least, in your own mind... or maybe that's another price you pay for being special, for being the Sentinel. I wish I could help you bear that load, my brother. I'd give anything if I could do that for you.

Desperate to ease his friend's obvious pain, Blair grasped his forearms. "I know," he said fiercely. "I know, Jim. My trust in you and yours in me is enough, and you understand that completely, but it's still so hard for you, isn't it? Hard to let me do this solo, to let me have the control this time. Maybe it's all part of the learning curve, man. Something we both need to do for the partnership to develop."

Blair knew he was rambling, but it was so important to get Jim to understand. To understand what it was that gave Blair Sandburg, grad student and devoted pacifist, the courage to go undercover and possibly confront a serial killer. "I don't have all the answers, man. I can just promise you that it's going to be okay, 'cause I trust myself, and even more than that, I trust you. It's okay, Jim. You can be scared. Hell, I live in a perpetual state of nervousness when I'm out with you sometimes, but the main thing is to go on and do what we have to do despite the fear."

Jim smiled, and that smile broke Blair's heart with its gentleness. "True courage and all that, Chief?"

Once more, he'd gotten through the armor plating and touched Jim's soul. They were going to be all right.

"Yeah, man. That's us, right? Courage incarnate." He grinned back and was only a little surprised when Jim pulled him into a quick, rough hug.

"I'm checking her out anyway, Chief," Jim murmured into his hair. "Can't be too careful."

"Blessed Protector extraordinaire," Blair laughed softly, not in the least angry that Jim would run a background check on Misty. He didn't blame him, and it touched him that Jim cared that much.

Jim's tribe and its two all-too-human guardians inhabited a dangerous city-jungle.

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

It was a hot day for Cascade, even in June. The summer sun beamed down, treating the city to a rare cloudless, blue-sky afternoon. Simon had summoned them to his office for a briefing before they left for the night's performance.

Performance in more ways than one, Blair mused as he settled onto the corner of Simon's conference table. How many roles am I playing right now? Keeping Jim's secret by pretending to be just an observer. Convincing my advisor and coworkers at Rainier that I'm just researching my diss and that's why I'm hanging around with Jim all the time. Convincing the audience, and hopefully our perp, that I'm 'with the band'. Convincing Jim that I know what the hell it is I'm doing as his Guide.

And convincing myself... of what?

That I can pull this undercover thing off... that I really will have a career in anthropology one day... that I know enough to protect Jim and keep us both safe. That I really can write my diss and manage to protect Jim's identity.

If the Academy only knew, I'd be a shoe-in for a little gold statue.

"Sandburg? Did you hear a single word I said?"

"Huh?" Blair's eyes darted from Simon to Jim. "Sorry, man," he grinned sheepishly. "Had my mind on the gig tonight."

"Just remember, Sandburg," Simon said pointedly, "what you're there for. Don't let your mind wander or you could land in real trouble." He looked hard at Jim. "Is doing all right? Really?"

Here was Jim's opportunity. If their conversation from the night before hadn't really reached Jim, this was his chance to pull the plug. Blair watched for any sign of how the Sentinel would react. Their eyes met and held, and then Jim smiled.

"Blair's doing great, Simon. No trained cop could handle himself better. We're good."

That was enough for Banks. He resumed the briefing. "We have a report that may point to another possible perp." He held up a black and white mug shot photo. "This is 'Chops' Cater. He's a player who thinks he's a hell of a lot better than he really is, according to reports we've received. Got a huge chip on his shoulder and gets his kicks taking shots at players he perceives as a threat to his imagined dominance as the top player around town."

"What earned him the mug shot? And the name? Sounds like the guy's got an axe fetish or something." Jim studied the photo with unveiled interest.

Blair laughed. "Chops is a jazz term, man. It means you got the licks, that you can tear up a guitar with your solos. No axes, man. Relax."

Jim scowled, but Blair caught the hint of laughter in his eyes and grinned back. "I don't know about the mug shot, though."

Simon picked up the tale. "Beat a guy half to death six years ago over on 14th Street outside the Dusky Lounge. Got out six months ago, and according to the guys we've got keeping an eye on the other clubs around town, he's up to his old tricks again. Bad-mouthing other guitarists and even laughing about the three murders. Said they didn't get anything they didn't deserve."

"Man," Blair mused, "that's cold. Think he's more than just filled with hot air?"

"Could be. He had another conviction in his 20's for assault with a deadly weapon. This guy's definitely bad news. A murder?" Simon tossed the photo down. "Got me. Memorize that face, though, Sandburg. Let Jim know if you see Chops anywhere around the Blue Note."

"Hey, guys?" Blair had been hesitant to voice his thoughts, but what the hell? All they could do was tell him he was wrong. "You think maybe our killer has skipped town? I mean, maybe he decided three murders here was enough. That a fourth would be pushing his luck." He looked from Jim to Simon.

Simon frowned. "We've considered that. This is the longest span between murders we've had. But I don't buy it. This guy is still around. Waiting. For what, I don't know, but I think he'll strike again. Probably soon."

Jim was watching him carefully, and Blair controlled the shiver that crept up his spine. "Good. We'll be ready for him."

He just wished he felt as confident as his words sounded.

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

"Hey, Jim!" Joel called to the detective when he entered the bullpen. "Got something over here you need to see."

Jim tossed his jacket on his desk and wandered over to Taggart's desk. "What you got?"

Joel's voice lowered, and Jim leaned in as if to hear, automatically keeping up the charade that his hearing was no better than average.

"You asked me to check out that girl Blair's interested in? The one from the Blue Note?"

"Yeah. What's her story?"

Grinning, Joel shook his head. "Looks like you're gonna have to cut the kid some slack on this one, Jim. This girl's as clean as a whistle. Not even a traffic ticket. Works at the library, like she said. Lives alone in a small, but nice, studio apartment on the third floor of the McMillan Building. Not a red flag to be found."

Jim's eyebrows arched. "Really? You mean Sandburg's finally found a winner?"

"Looks that way. Listen, you want me to squash this? Figured you didn't want Hairboy knowing you were checking out his ladies. Again."

"This time it's not a problem. I told him I was going to run a background check on her."

"And we didn't hear the fireworks clear across town? Figured he'd hit the ceiling at that news."

Jim smiled. "Sometimes the kid surprises me, Joel. Even after all this time, he still surprises me."

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

Another week crept by. No sign of Chops or of any other likely candidates for serial killer of the year in Cascade. At this rate, school would be starting back, and still the murderer would be eluding them, Blair ruminated as he unpacked his gear at the Blue Note on Friday night. Of course, there were some parts of his weeks spent undercover that had been great. The music first and foremost. Blair felt more relaxed, more centered within himself than he had in a long time. Creativity was definitely a balm for the soul.

Then there was meeting Misty. They'd seen each other a twice outside of the Blue Note, both times meeting for dinner and once for a movie afterwards. Blair enjoyed her company. She had a wicked sense of humor, he'd discovered, and they shared many similar interests. After so many disastrous relationships, he could definitely see this one heading somewhere good. Even Jim had been forced to admit she was okay.

Coming from Jim, that was a major coup.

Tonight, Jim was monitoring him from the truck. He'd come inside the club about once a week, but neither of them wanted to risk his being seen around more than that. Last night had been an 'indoor' surveillance, so tonight it was the parking lot again.

As Blair hooked up his amp, he murmured, "You clue me in if you see Chops heading this way, man. That is one big dude with a majorly bad attitude toward guitarists. Hell, I might switch to drums if I see him coming." He chuckled, knowing that not too far away, Jim was doing the same.

The first two sets were uneventful. No sign of Chops or even Bernard. No new faces at all really, but perhaps the summer rain had something to do with the light crowd. Blair relaxed, enjoying his solos and just riding the waves of music.

Then he looked toward the back of the room. Eduardo stood there, not in his waiter's shirt, but in 'civilian' clothes. Not on duty. So why was he there?

Eduardo's brown eyes were fixed on Blair, watching every move. An angry scowl creased his face, and even through the smoky haze, his eyes burned.

"Hey, man," Blair whispered, hoping Jim would hear him over the music. "Eduardo's here -not working - and he looks to be in a foul mood, apparently directed at me. Keep listening, okay?"

There seemed to be more smoke than usual inside the small club. Turning to Ricardo, he said, "I'm gonna step outside for some air, man."

"Raining out there," his bandmate pointed out.

Blair shrugged. "Yeah, but my sinuses are killing me. Wet is preferable."

Ricardo laughed. "Just be back in fifteen, okay?"

"Sure."

Blair headed straight to the door. If Eduardo had something on his mind, better to take it outside where Jim had a clear view of all that was happening.

He'd barely made it outside before a malevolent presence was at his side. Eduardo's hands gripped his shoulders, shoving him against the wall. Blair brought his hands up, palms out, in a gesture of non-resistance. "Hey! What's...?"

Memories of Eduardo's past burned in his mind. *A year before he immigrated here, Sanchez' girlfriend disappeared... No trace was ever found... prime suspect... couldn't pin it on him... vanished from a nightclub in San Juan... late-night place with live music.

Oh, God...

His eyes cut to Jim's truck on the far end of the parking lot, and his racing heart slowed a bit. Jim was here. Jim could be at his side in an instant, jerking this guy off him. Nothing was going to happen. He was safe.

Unless the dude had a knife. No way Jim could beat the blade of a knife.

Or a bullet. Guy like Eduardo probably had a gun on him, too. Hell, the man was probably a walking arsenal.

But the victims hadn't been killed at the clubs. They'd been taken away, then murdered, and Jim wouldn't allow that to happen. Not to his Guide.

Eduardo's grip on his shoulders was painful. The guy was skinny, but damn, he was strong.

"Look, man, let's be civilized." Blair used his most reasonable voice, as much to let Jim know he was okay as to calm his attacker. "I don't even know you, so I'm clueless here. What's this all about?"

"You know damn well what this is about!" Dark eyes blazed in anger. "It's about Mariah!"

Mariah? Who was...?

Then he remembered. The Latino girl he'd chatted with briefly about a week ago. "Mariah is...?"

"My girlfriend, you bastard!"

A clinched fist hovered before Blair's eyes. Sanchez' girlfriend disappeared... If he'd killed a previous girlfriend, what might he do to a guy he thought was hitting on the new lady in his life?

He almost called Jim's name. The familiar name was on his tongue, ready to spill out, but Blair fought the impulse. If Jim rushed to his rescue now, he'd blow their cover. If Sanchez wasn't the serial killer, then the work of the past three weeks would be lost. Better to try another plan.

Blair lowered his eyes to the top button of Sanchez' well-worn shirt. Avoid any appearance of aggression or challenge. Subordinate yourself to the guy in control. "Look, Eduardo, I am sorry about talking with Mariah if it's upset you this much, but man, there was nothing going on. We talked. Period. She was anxious to get home, probably to you, and I went back to play. That's it. We haven't talked since; we will never talk again. I'm not a guy to cut in on a man's turf, if you know what I mean."

The grip on his shoulders loosened a bit, and Blair, encouraged, rattled on. "You're a good man, Eduardo."

Forgive this obfuscation, Jim... it's for a good cause. The health of my face.

"It's obvious you care a lot for Mariah, and she's lucky to have you. Believe me, I intended no disrespect." He raised his eyes to meet Sanchez' eyes, no longer spitting fire. "I apologize to you, and I apologize for any disrespect you may have felt."

The hands released him. This time, Sanchez looked away first. "It's cool, man," he muttered. "I just don't like no one messing with my lady, you know?"

"Oh, I know," Blair quickly agreed. "Nothing makes me madder."

As if he'd found a kindred spirit, Eduardo grinned. "Then we understand each other?"

"Definitely. No doubt." Blair glanced at his watch. "Hey, my break's almost over. I gotta get something out of my car. Catch you later?"

Eduardo drifted back inside, and Blair slouched against the wet bricks of the Blue Note for a moment, gathering his strength. His knees felt like pudding.

Looking around, he confirmed that the parking lot was empty then jogged to Jim's truck and slipped quickly inside. The relief of being on safe turf, if only for a few minutes, was nearly overwhelming. Being undercover was way more stressful than he'd figured it would be, especially when guys like Eduardo were making your life... interesting.

Jim's ice-blue eyes pinned him to the seat. "You okay, Chief?" Jim's right hand gripped his arm, but it was nothing like the threatening hold of Sanchez. In Jim's touch, there was only concern.

Blair leaned back and shut his eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine. Old Eddie had me wondering there for a minute, but I'm fine."

The grip on his arm loosened then turned into a supportive squeeze. "You handled that guy like a pro, Chief. I had my hand on the door, ready to come put the cuffs on him, but you kept the situation under control." Jim hesitated, and Blair opened his eyes. Their gazes locked. "I'm proud of you, Blair. I mean that."

Despite his tiredness, Blair's smile threatened to split his face. "Thanks, man. It's good to hear. I've been having doubts myself."

"About?"

He leaned back again, and once more, his eyes shut. Man, he was beat. "About whether this is really accomplishing anything. I mean, maybe the perp saw through me the first week. Maybe he's moved on or plans to hit some poor guy at another club because of something I did blow it. Maybe..."

"If any of that's true, it's not your fault. All we can do is try, Chief. Do our best out here every day. Sometimes we win. Unfortunately, sometimes the bad guys win. That's the life of a cop."

Blair looked at Jim. His friend's eyes were intent on him, sizing him up, and Blair knew instinctively that Jim was wondering if he should pull the plug on the operation. Wondering if Blair was burning out and if continuing would put his life in danger.

Before he could speak, Jim added, "Simon's agreed to give us one more week. If we don't get a bite by then, we're done. We'll try something else. Think you can hang in there another week, Chief?"

Blair thought about the joy he'd found in the music and the friendships he'd made with the members of Backbeat. Life in the club wasn't bad at all. It was the stress of why he was really there that was eating at him. "Sure. I'm enjoying most of it. Really. Another week'll be a piece of cake."

Jim tapped his watch. "Don't you have a gig to play?"

"Oh, man!" He threw open the door. "I gotta go!"

On the way across the parking lot, he added, "Keep listening, Jim. Don't forget about me in there."

Blair couldn't hear the soft reply from inside the parked truck.

"I couldn't forget about you, Chief. I got your back. Just like always."

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

The evening ended unceremoniously. Chops never showed. Eduardo left an hour or so after his encounter with Blair, and the rest of their sets went smoothly. By 12:30, Backbeat called it a night and packed their gear.

Misty showed up around ten and listened appreciatively to the music, tapping her pump-clad foot to the beat. Blair grinned at her as she entered, delighted to see a friendly face. They talked during his next break.

"Your mother sound fascinating, Blair." Misty laughed at the end of Blair's humorous tale of Naomi meeting up with friends she hadn't seen in years at the top of a Himalayan mountain peak. Only Naomi...

"She is," Blair agreed. Suddenly solemn, he added, "I'd like you to meet her one day."

Misty's warm brown eyes smiled. "I'd like that, too." She reached across the table and took his hand in hers.

Blair glanced at the stage. "Listen, I have one more set. After that, would you like to... I don't know... go to the all night Chinese place and grab a late dinner? We could talk some more and..."

She hushed him with a squeeze of his hand. "I'd love to."

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

As they left the restaurant, Blair gestured toward his car. "Mine's over there. Not the most comfortable, but..."

"We can take my Honda," Misty offered. "Your guitar will fit in the trunk, but your amp..."

"I'll leave it here. We're playing tomorrow night. They'll be locked up until then." He glanced at Jim's truck. "Uh... why don't you go on and start it up? I just need to run lock up."

Once Misty was safely inside her car, Blair headed toward his car, talking to Jim. "We're calling it a night, man. Head on home and get some rest. I'll be in later. Maybe." He flashed a grin at Ellison, confident his friend heard and saw all.

Jim's lights blinked on and off in acknowledgement.

Blair turned and joined Misty in her car. A few moments later they left the lot and turned north.

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

Jim smiled at Blair's 'maybe'. Well, the kid deserved a break. Deserved some happiness. He would head home to the loft and kick back for a while. Maybe watch an old movie on TV.

He watched a lone figure head across the parking lot, and his smile faded. Grabbing the mug shot from the passenger seat, he quickly studied it, then focused his Sentinel vision on the face in the dark walking toward the Blue Note.

Chops Cater.

At least Sandburg was safely on his way.

The man entered the club, and Jim opened his door to follow.

By the time he stepped inside, Chops was standing at the bar, a beer in hand, talking to the bartender.

"We're closing in fifteen minutes," the bartender called.

Jim waved, and he took a seat at a small table. It was the first time he'd been inside the club when there wasn't a crowd. Focusing his attention on Chops, he listened to the conversation.

It was all about baseball. Who was leading the divisions. Which batters were hot, which were not.

Not exactly the conversation of a killer, if indeed there was any way to recognize such a thing.

Jim surveyed the inside of the club. Peanut shells and cocktail napkins littered the floor. An earring lay lost and crunched by an unsuspecting foot. Cubic zirconia, Jim decided, focusing his Sentinel sight for a closer look. Nothing valuable lost.

His eyes narrowed as a rush of adrenaline surged through him. Jim bolted from his chair. Beside a table just back from the stage, he bent over, an evidence bag already out and ready. Using a glove quickly snapped onto his hand, Jim picked up a small carved object.

A guitar pick.

Handcarved from fossilized ivory with a thumb indentation.

Identical to those found with the three victims' bodies.

The killer had been here tonight.

Shoving the baggie in his shirt pocket, he ran to the bar. Flashing his badge, he barked, "You were working here all night? Who sat at the table in the middle right in front of the stage? The table for two?"

Impatiently, Jim waited as the bartender, identified on his name badge as Kevin, squinted at the table and considered.

C'mon! C'mon! There's a killer out there and I just got my first hot lead. Who the hell was at that table?

When the answer came at last, the words froze Jim's blood in his veins.

"I remember. It was a girl. Really attractive one, too. Brunette. Brown eyes. Comes in here pretty regularly. I think her name's..."

Jim knew the answer before he heard it.

"Misty."

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

"Simon!" Jim sat hunched over the steering wheel, staring down the street in front of the Blue Note, first north, then south. Which way had they turned? Why the hell hadn't he noticed?

"I need an APB on a black Honda, but I don't know the license. It's owned by Misty Arnold, and..."

He could hardly believe he was saying the words... "I think she's our killer."

He cut Simon's flabbergasted questioning short. "No time. Blair's with her now. I found one of the custom picks under the table where she was sitting, but not until after she and Sandburg took off in her car. He has no idea..." Jim realized his hands were shaking on the wheel. He stared at them like some alien object, foreign and unfamiliar and completely out of his control. His voice flat, Jim added, "We gotta find them, Simon. Fast."

Simon promised to run a light-speed registration check and to call Jim back. In the meantime, they'd issue an APB on Sandburg, the girl, and the description of the Honda.

After the connection was broken, Jim shut his eyes. Relax... let your mind show you what you need to know...

Sandburg's voice... Guiding him even now.

Jim breathed deeply and saw the Honda pulling from the lot. It turned...

North!

Jerking the wheel, Jim barreled down the street, ignoring posted speed limits and blinking traffic signals.

He opened his hearing to nearly maximum range. If he was going to locate Sandburg, he needed every Sentinel sense he possessed. Even with them, it was going to take a miracle.

Minutes dragged by with lead feet. Jim circled, turned and retraced his routes, all the time listening... listening... listening. They were out there somewhere, the deranged killer and his partner. He had to find them.

Before it was too late.

The rain had stopped, and the streets glistened in the light of streetlamps. An unearthly mist rose, colored amber by the city lights.

C'mon, Chief! Where the hell are you? Where would you have gone?

Suddenly, a familiar voice floated through the night air, and Jim's heart skipped a beat.

Sandburg!

Jim strained even harder, risking a zone-out and losing the tenuous thread tying him to Blair. He could make out Blair's words, but hers were more difficult. Wouldn't Sandburg find that interesting? He could hear his Guide's voice so much more clearly.

I promise you can test me on it all you want, Chief. Just come back safely, and I'm yours for the testing.

Jim slowed the truck as he listened.

//... sure you don't want dinner out?//

//... at your place? ... not too much trouble?//

//... eat a brownie before dinner, but if you insist... baked them yourself? Just one then... maybe two... //

"No!" Jim shouted out the denial, even knowing there was no way Sandburg could hear him. The chocolate. That was how the bitch had rendered the men she'd killed too helpless to resist. Chocolate had been found during all three autopsies, along with the remnants of the sedatives she'd baked into them.

And Blair had never heard those results.

Jim pounded the wheel in frustration even as he desperately searched the streets for a sight of the black Honda. They couldn't be that far away. Three blocks? Maybe only two?

But which two?

Acting purely on instinct, he made a sharp U-turn, tires squealing in protest, then turned to the right and headed the wrong way down a one way street, not caring about the myriad of laws he was breaking.

//... funny... not... feeling... so good... sick... take me... home?//

"Hang in there, Chief," Jim chanted. "Don't lose consciousness, buddy. Keep talking for me. Keep talking... I'm listening." Frantic blue eyes combed the night for the dark car. "I hear you, Blair. Don't give up on me, buddy."

Then... in what must have been little more than a whisper...

//... Jim? Dark... Honda... Howard's Deli... Parkview Place... Sorry, Jim... //

//... Jim... ? I... I... //

Silence...

"No!" Strain as he might, the connection was gone.

Blair was gone.

But he'd given Jim what he needed - a general location to begin looking.

Snatching his cell phone, Jim called the station. "I need all units in the area of Parkview Place. We're looking for a dark Honda sedan..."

//We have a license on that car now, Detective Ellison. I'll issue the APB immediately.//

Moments later, the area surrounding Blair's last known location was crawling with police.

And one desperate Sentinel.

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

He should team up with Simon or Joel or any one of his fellow officers now combing the streets for any sign of the Honda or Sandburg. He'd taken a huge risk, keeping his hearing wide-open for that long, and the danger wasn't over yet. Even now, Jim's vision and hearing were operating at maximum, and it wouldn't take much to send him spiraling into a zone-out or into spasms of pain.

But he had to use his senses to locate Sandburg, and Jim knew that having any other cop along, even Simon, would limit him.

And right now, he couldn't afford limits.

Jim continued scanning the area with his senses, even as his trained detective's mind weighed the possibilities. Misty's apartment wasn't far from here, if he remembered Joel's info about the woman correctly. But that didn't feel right. How could a woman manage to get three victims - his mind refused to consider Blair the fourth - upstairs in a busy apartment building? Didn't make sense.

What else did he know about her? She didn't have family... hadn't been in Cascade long... worked as a research librarian...

Wait! That was it.

Jim made a hard left and gunned the engine. A minute later, he was pulling up in front of a boarded up brick structure, built in the 1930s. A graying limestone sign over the entry read 'Cascade Public Library'. Abandoned since the new library had been built a decade before, the old library building had been used for storage until last year when it was deemed structurally unsound and condemned. Lawsuits by a historic preservation society had prevented its planned demolition. It was located in what had once been a busy commercial district. Like so many other neighborhoods in so many other cities, it had become another victim of urban blight. The other buildings surrounding it had also been abandoned years before. Plans were on the books to create a park here, once the legal path had been cleared. Huge, isolated, and unoccupied, it was the perfect place to carry out a murder.

The Honda was concealed around back. Jim killed the engine and punched Simon's number on the speed dial of his cell phone. "Simon, I'm at the old public library. Her car's here. I'm going in the back way. Send back up, but wait outside until I give the word."

His captain put forth the expected protest.

Jim shook his head in frustration. "No! If we come blasting in like storm troopers, Blair won't live long enough for us to find him. I'm trained for this, Simon. I'm doing this one my way."

He neither asked nor waited for Banks' approval. By the time it came, the phone was off and tucked in the pocket of Jim's leather jacket as he stole silently through the night and into the old brick building.

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

Amazing how it all came back, as though he used his Special Forces training every day. His steps made not a sound and dressed in his black leather jacket and dark pants, Jim was practically invisible. Holding his gun at his chest with both hands, he heard every creak of the old timbers, could scent even the gray rat that skittered over the dusty floor. With his military training combined with honed Sentinel skills, Ellison was a formidable adversary.

Concentrating, Jim tuned out the musty odors, the sound of the wind outside, and every other non-Blair input that interfered with finding his Guide. One by one, he dialed out extraneous sensory interference, until there was only one sound and one scent left.

Sandburg...

His Guide's heart was beating much too slowly, probably a result of the sedative Misty had slipped into the brownie Blair had eaten. Jim calculated the distance. Blair was on the next floor up.

Stealthily, Jim climbed the stairs leading to the second floor. Blair wasn't talking, but he heard Misty's voice. At the top of the stairs, he paused, listening, determining an exact location.

"You thought you'd do it to me again, didn't you? Leave me again, leave me alone with nobody. With nothing. But I'm smarter now. I know what you are. I won't let you hurt me again."

A low, bitter laugh. "No one will ever hurt me again. Not now that I am strong enough to hurt them first."

Jim slipped through the door. He couldn't see them yet, but Blair's heartbeat rang clearly in his ears, echoing in his very marrow.

His Guide was near.

Cautiously, Jim eased down the narrow old hallway. It was lined with what had once been offices. The doors were gone, now, and Misty's voice was growing nearer as she talked to herself.

"Once you're tied down, your punishment begins. You never seem to learn, so the lessons must continue until you do. I..."

Jim froze at the sound of a sharp scream.

"No!"

Blair's voice!

Jim rocketed down the hallway, but he wasn't as quick as Sandburg. The younger man staggered out of the last office on the right, then slammed against the hall wall.

"Blair!" Jim called to his friend. He was still at least a dozen doors away. "Sandburg!"

Misty ran from the office, and the light from her flashlight glinted off her knife's blade. "Stop!" She lunged for Blair, the knife held high in tightly clasped fists. Her face, contorted by rage, seemed hardly human.

Blair stumbled to the side, then leaned heavily against the wall, panting, and Misty's knife missed its mark. But Jim saw in horror that blood ran in a bright red river from Blair's shoulder; apparently Misty had not missed as she pursued him from the room.

Jim didn't intend to give her another opportunity.

"Cascade P.D.! Freeze!" He aimed his weapon, giving her an instant to make her decision.

Misty stopped, staring at Jim, the knife still poised in the air. In less than a second, it could plunge into Blair's chest. "He hurt me," she whispered. "He said he loved me, then he left me and our daughter. He betrayed me. Not even for a woman. For life on the road. For his damned music!" Her eyes turned back to Sandburg. "He must pay." Pulling her arms back, she smiled.

The bullet entered her body, puncturing her right lung and then her heart. Misty drew a gasping breath, her eyes widening in horrified realization. "Mark...?" She slipped soundlessly to the floor, and her eyes remained opened wide, unblinking and unseeing.

As Misty died, Blair jerked around. "No!" He staggered down the hallway, still running for his life.

"Blair!" Jim ran after him, holstering his gun and calling to his friend. "It's me, Chief! It's Jim!"

Suddenly, the building was flooded with light. His vision still opened to its maximum capacity, Jim was taken by surprise. Gasping in pain, he brought his hands up to cover his eyes. "Who the hell...?"

The sound of running feet came up behind him. "Jim!" Simon's voice greeted him. "Where...?" The question stopped as Simon saw the body of Misty lying just ahead.

Jim brought his senses back under control and wheeled to confront Simon. "What the hell is with the lights? You almost blinded me!"

"I told them to wait," Simon snapped angrily. "I gave the order to be ready to restore power but not to do it until I gave the word. Somebody..."

It didn't matter. Blair was out there somewhere in the maze of a building, drugged, injured, and frantic, believing a killer was still stalking him. In his confused state, anything might happen to hurt him.

"Sandburg's on the run. I don't think he's coherent. I've gotta find him fast."

Calmer now, Simon asked, "How can I help?"

"Just keep everyone out. If I can find him, he'll hear me. I know he will. But if he hears a bunch of others..." Jim was already heading down the hallway, opening his senses again. "Just keep them away."

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

The walls and floor kept trying to confuse him. Sometimes, he was certain his feet were making contact with the floor, then in the blink of an eye, he was staggering to keep from falling to his knees. Colors swirled about in weird patterns, and the sound of his own labored breathing sounded foreign.

She was coming.

Who was she again? Alex?

Alex wanted to kill him, didn't she?

Misty?

He'd like Misty, but she'd hurt him, too.

Maybe it was both of them.

He was no longer sure exactly who she was, but she meant to kill him.

His arm throbbed with each heartbeat, a constant reminder of exactly how dangerous she was. He remembered her bending over him, nylon rope in hand, ready to tie him to the old wooden library table. Her knife temporarily laid aside, he knew it was his final chance for survival. As she bent down, Blair summoned all his will, all his strength, and kicked.

She lay stunned on the floor, and he rolled off the table, his own legs betraying him. Just reaching the door took a Herculean effort, but he did it. Jim was coming. Blair was sure of it. He just had to hold out until he his Sentinel arrived.

That's when his hearing went out. It reminded Blair of being deep underwater where nothing sounds as it should, like being deep in a well and hearing only echoes and roaring and booming. He knew she would come after him, though, and she did.

Somehow, he managed to escape again, and this time, he had no intention of stopping. A moment later, Blair staggered forward, and the walls and floor once again traded places, and he fell.

He wasn't going to make it. Jim would come, but he wouldn't be in time. Not this time.

Blair's breath caught in a sob and he lay on the dirty floor, panting. Warm blood ran down his arm, soaking the dust around him. He couldn't outrun her. She would find him, drag him back to that damned table, and use her knife on him. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and he felt the bile rising in his throat.

No! Forcing himself to his knees, he crawled down the hallway, searching...

If he couldn't run, he could hide.

Then he spotted it. The perfect hiding place.

Weak, confused, and losing more blood every second, Blair called upon every ounce of strength remaining and wearily crawled into his sanctuary. He huddled there, swallowing his sobs and trembling, listening fearfully for the sounds of her footsteps.

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

It wasn't hard tracking his wounded partner. Jim could have followed the trail of blood even without Sentinel abilities. The end of the hallway opened into what must have been a large conference room. As big as any six of the other offices, it still contained remnants of odd pieces of broken furniture and shelves.

"Blair?" Jim listened carefully to the frantic beating of the familiar heart. He followed the cadence over to a small storage closet. The door stood barely ajar, and he counted five drops of fresh blood on the floor outside. As he slowly opened the door, the pounding heartbeat quickened.

"Chief? It's me," he called softly. "It's Jim."

His eyes adjusted to the darkness of the little room. If it had ever had a light bulb, it was long broken. After a few moments, he could see clearly.

No Sandburg.

Puzzled, Jim followed the pounding heartbeat, and despite his concern for his partner, smiled.

In the corner, an old desk sat haphazardly against the wall. In front of it was a beat-up desk chair. Jim crouched down and slowly pulled the chair away.

Trembling in the corner was Blair. His blue eyes were unfocused and confused, his hair hung limply about his face, and he clutched his injured arm tightly against him. At Jim's appearance, he cowered further into the corner, shut his eyes, and his head moved slowly from side to side. His body trembled as though he were freezing, and even streaked with dirt and blood, his face was far too pale. "No... please... don't hurt me."

The words were heartbreaking. Recognizing the signs of shock, Jim kept his voice low and soothing. Every fiber of the Sentinel's being longed to reach out, to touch and to heal his Guide, but Jim's military and medic training won out. Win his trust first.

"Chief? It's me, buddy. It's Jim. Can you hear me, Blair?" For a long minute, Ellison kept up the low, encouraging words, waiting for reality to set in for the traumatized young man. "It's all right now, Blair. You can open your eyes. Come on, Chief. Look at me. You're safe now. Look at me, Blair."

Slowly, dazed blue eyes emerged from behind the tightly shut lids. At the sight of Jim's smile, Blair's trembling eased slightly. "J... Jim...? You're here?"

Jim nodded, not trusting his voice for a moment. He swallowed hard. "I'm here, Blair. It's over."

For an instant, he wasn't sure if Blair understood. Then, with a surprising surge of energy, the younger man shot forward and wrapped his good arm around Jim's shoulder. Burying his head in Jim's neck, Blair sobbed quietly.

Jim felt the warmth of blood seeping into his shirt where his jacket had fallen open. He had to get Sandburg to the hospital. In a minute...

Enfolding Blair gratefully in his arms, Jim held him tightly. "It's okay," he whispered. "It's okay... I'm here." He began rocking slightly, and his sensitive fingers found a home in Sandburg's thick curls and buried themselves there.

Jim understood that the trembling and the tears were more a combination of the drugs in Sandburg's system and shock than from fear, but he wanted - needed - to reassure Blair that he was safe, that it really was over.

Hell, he needed those few moments of closeness to reassure himself.

"You're going to be all right," he murmured, not really thinking about his words, knowing it was his voice that would provide the comfort his friend needed. "I'm here now. Shhhh, Blair... "

In the back of his mind, Jim heard footsteps coming closer and knew his back-up would be there soon. He should have known Simon wouldn't wait forever.

His face rested against Blair's cheek, and he could feel the clammy coolness of his Guide's skin. It was time to get to the hospital. Turning his head slightly, Jim whispered against Blair's temple, "We gotta go now, kid. Think you can walk or you want me to get the paramedics up here?"

"Walk..." Blair's voice was thick, and he didn't ease his grip on Jim at all.

Jim grinned. "Well, we'll see about that." Easing himself back a bit from Blair, he worked one arm beneath Sandburg's shoulders. "C'mon, Chief. Up and at 'em."

Once they were on their feet, Blair leaned heavily against Jim with one arm around the Sentinel's waist. His head rolled onto Jim's shoulder, and he looked up at his friend with groggy eyes. "Hey, Jim?"

Ellison started slowly toward the door. "Yeah, Chief?"

"We stopped her, didn't we?"

His heart tightened in affection for the courageous young man at his side. "You got her, Blair. You did great, buddy. I'm so damned proud of you."

Slowly, a broad smile spread across Blair's pale face, and Jim tugged him a bit closer. By the time they made it to the hall door, Simon was running up, Henri and Rafe on his heels. At the sight of the other members of Major Crimes, Jim felt Blair take a deep breath and stand a little straighter, managing to support a bit more of his own weight. As the others hovered around, he answered their questions quickly and to the point, even joking around a time or two.

He's a hell of a kid, Jim thought then he mentally amended the words. He's a hell of a partner and friend. One hell of a cop, even without the badge. Maybe it's time I told him that.

"Come on, buddy," he said softly. "Let's go get you checked out so we can go home. It's been a long night."

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

Jim left Blair briefly in Simon's care while he spoke to the investigative team in charge of wrapping up the scene. Rafe and Henri were patient, asking their questions as briefly as possible and accepting Jim's short answers willingly. Cops understood the need to care for partners first, answer questions later.

Blair had eschewed the ambulance for Simon's sedan. He hated all things doctor-related, and ambulances in particular. The medics had given him a quick once over, and after determining that he wasn't in critical condition, had agreed to private transportation to Cascade General.

They sat in the back seat now, Blair leaning against Simon, Jim's overlarge coat wrapped around his slim body. He kept drifting in and out, and Simon refrained from conversation unless Blair initiated it. Obviously, he was still confused from the drug in his system, but overall, the young man had weathered his ordeal remarkably well.

"J... Jim?" Blair jerked out of his restless sleep, and Simon tightened the arm he'd wrapped around the young man's shoulders.

"It's okay. Jim's right outside, talking with Rafe and Henri. He'll be back in just a minute." Simon felt Blair relax, and he smiled as he looked down. With his disheveled hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and battered face, Blair definitely brought out the protective father in Simon. He had a flash of what it must be like for Jim, Blair's self-anointed Blessed Protector.

What an awesome responsibility.

Unexpectedly, Blair tilted his head and looked up at Simon. "Is he okay?"

Simon's heart tightened. He'd never lose his awe for the bond between Jim and Blair. Even drugged and hurt, Blair's first concern was for Jim, just as Ellison never thought about his own injuries until he knew Blair was safe. "Yeah," he said softly. "Jim's fine."

After a moment, seeing Blair was still awake, he added, "He was scared when he realized what had happened to you." A moment later, Simon wasn't sure exactly why he'd said it, except he believed that Blair fervently needed to know that Jim cared. Needed that reassurance somehow on a soul-deep level.

Blair shivered a little, and Simon pulled Jim's coat more snuggly around him, then shifted so the younger man could absorb more of his body heat.

"Jim's never scared." The words were just a whisper, but Simon detected a note of hope that maybe, just as at the fountain, he had been.

"Where you're concerned, he is. You surely know that by now."

Simon thought a moment. "Jim Ellison's one of the toughest men I've ever known and one of the most courageous. Men like that sometimes refuse to allow themselves the tiniest chink in their own armor. Jim was headed down that road before he met you, and it wasn't a pleasant time. He let you inside, Blair. Maybe he really didn't have a choice. Either way, you're pretty much the only person on the face of this earth with the power to bring Jim Ellison to his knees in fear."

Blair blinked up at him with drowsy eyes. "Yeah. I'm his Guide. He needs me to keep him safe."

The kid honestly didn't know. Blair really thought Jim's fear of losing him was a purely selfish concern for his own safety.

"It's more than that, Sandburg," Simon assured him solemnly. "Jim cares about you - you, not just as his Guide. He cares about you a lot. Hell, he loves you, son. You don't see him when he's terrified of losing you. You don't see how vulnerable that makes him. I've told you what he was like that day... that morning at the fountain. It nearly killed him to see you lying there."

Simon swallowed hard before he could continue. "Blair, you hold tremendous power over a very powerful man. I've known Jim a long time, and he's never given anyone that much power over him before. Not even Carolyn. Use it carefully."

Even in his drugged state, Simon could see Blair's agile mind working to digest all he'd said. Before he could answer, the door opened, and Jim's worried face was watching them.

"I'll take it from here, Simon. Let's get him to the hospital."

Carefully, Simon relinquished Blair to Jim. As he settled the younger man into Jim's protective arms, Blair looked up at him. "Thanks, Simon," he whispered. "I understand a lot more now."

Jim caught his eye, questioning him silently, but Simon just shook his head and smiled. He closed the back door of the car and took the driver's seat.

There were some things better left just between friends.

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

It was dawn before they finally made it home. The hospital had put a rush on Blair's case, thanks to Simon's insistence, but it still took a while to get the lab reports back on his blood work. The sedative used was powerful, but apparently, Blair had palmed part of the brownie, so he never got the full amount Misty had intended. For once, Jim was thankful for his friend's health fetish. It probably saved his life.

The doctor gave Blair the all-clear at least, releasing him into Jim's care. They were at home in the loft a half hour later.

Dawn was breaking by the time the exhausted Sentinel climbed into bed. Blair had fallen asleep the moment his head hit his pillow, thanks to the lingering effects of the sedative. Jim thought he'd sleep safely for several hours at least, and he knew he needed to take advantage of that fact by grabbing some sleep himself.

Once Sandburg was awake, they'd have plenty of ground to cover, together and with Simon.

Jim lay quietly, listening. In the little room below his, Blair was sleeping peacefully. He monitored the steady heartbeat for several minutes, but there didn't seem to be any sign of distress.

Perhaps the nightmares would spare his friend long enough for them both to rest.

Breathing a silent prayer of gratitude, the Sentinel drifted to sleep.

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

Simon came to the loft in mid-afternoon. He'd called from the station, and Jim had quietly given him the all-clear to come by. Listening for the sound of Simon's sedan, Jim had the door already open by the time the captain made it to their floor.

"How's the patient?"

Jim held a finger to his lips. "Sleeping," he whispered. Then he noticed the guitar case in Simon's hand. "Hey, thanks. Did you go by the club?"

Banks shook his head. "It was in her trunk. Rafe and Henri gathered Blair's things from the Blue Note. They'll bring the amp and other stuff later on. I just thought it might be nice for him to have his guitar back home again."

Jim motioned to the balcony. "Let's go where we can talk."

A few minutes later, they were relaxing and enjoying the summer afternoon. Jim monitored Blair's breathing and heartbeat. So far, the younger man had barely turned over, and Jim was thankful he was resting comfortably.

"Tomorrow you can fill me in on the details of what went down at the old library, Jim. I know you and Blair are both wiped out today."

Ellison nodded. "He should be up to making his statement by then. The sleep today will do him a world of good. Get the drugs out of his system and give his body a rest, too."

Jim watched a gull drift overhead. The gray and white feathers reflected the clouds passing behind the bird, and Jim was struck by the beauty that could still exist even in a world with such evil.

"We got the full story on Misty this morning," Simon said softly.

That jerked Jim's attention back to earth.

"Her real name was Misty Shackleford. She was married to Mark Shackleford, a jazz guitarist from Connecticut. They had one child, a daughter, who'd be about eight now. All that stuff about her father being a cop was apparently true."

"Sounds normal enough."

"Except for what happened next. Apparently Misty wasn't very supportive of her husband's career, according to friends Rafe interviewed by phone this morning. She kept pushing him to give up his music, to find a more conventional job. In fact, her sister said that she issued an ultimatum - choose between her and their daughter and the music."

"And he chose the road."

"Exactly," Simon confirmed. "Arranged for a divorce settlement with ample child support and hit the road with a touring band. Misty didn't take it well. She was in and out of psychiatrists' offices for depression and tried to take her own life twice. Eventually, she lost custody of the child when the Department of Children's Services stepped in. That's when she turned her focus from self-hatred to hatred of her ex-husband. Problem was, she couldn't locate him. Seems Mark Shackleford just dropped off the face of the earth. Maybe the guy knew she was a psycho and changed his name to avoid her locating him. Who knows?"

Banks hesitated. "Her sister faxed us an old photo of Mark. The resemblance to Blair and the other victims..." He shook his head slightly. "It was uncanny."

Hence his partner's perfect fit into the mold of victim. "So she ended up in Cascade," Jim mused. "New name, new life."

"After killed three other men in Houston, Memphis, and Nashville. This wasn't her first stop, Jim."

"When she was holding the knife on Blair, she said something about his having betrayed her for music instead of a woman. That he had to be punished. But it was Blair she was about to stab."

Simon shrugged. "She lost it a long time ago. Each time she killed, she was acting out her fantasy of murdering her husband. Blair was lucky. He survived."

Jim knew an opening when he saw one. "Luck had nothing to do with it. He survived because he's a fighter, Simon. And he's smart. He never gives up, regardless of the odds." Jim held his captain's gaze firmly. "Blair deserves recognition for that, for all he's done for the department."

Quizzically, Simon regarded him for a long moment. "What did you have in mind?"

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

Two days later, Banks and Ellison sat before the Chief of Police. Jim had been talking for nearly an hour, and when he finished at last, he was completely drained. "So that's the story, sir. That's why I need Sandburg as my partner and why he can't go to the Academy to become a cop. We have to find a compromise, or I'm..." A long breath to find strength to say words that were never easy. "I'm afraid I'm going to lose him."

The Chief's face showed a range of emotion from doubt to disbelief. "You've told me quite a story, Detective. It does explain your extraordinary record, but still... " He shook his head. "It is rather hard to believe."

Simon broke in. "Every word is true, sir. I can vouch for it."

Jim wanted to move on, to obtain what he'd come here for in the first place. Vindication for Blair. "How about a demonstration?"

The Chief nodded. "All right."

Jim stood up and looked around the office then wandered to the window. "Which one's your car?"

Joining him at the window, the Chief pointed to the spot nearest the door, twenty-one floors down. "The black Audi. Why?"

"You back into your space. Good. Your tag number is 26A457. You have a small scratch and dent on the trunk, right hand side."

"That's where my son dropped a tennis racket." The Chief's eyes were wide. "But you could have seen all that on the way up."

It was obvious he needed more proof.

"Okay," Jim said patiently. "Go into your outer office. Whisper something to your secretary. Close this door on the way out."

Casting back a look of disbelief, the Chief left the room, closing the door behind him.

"Hope he's not planning a rendez-vous for tonight," Simon quipped softly. "He's a married man."

Jim cocked his head and grinned. "Nothing so exciting. He's ordering take-out Chinese for lunch."

Simon's expression turned serious. "Look, Jim, if this works, are you sure you can handle the risks Sandburg will be taking, day in and day out? You may not be able to protect him every time something goes wrong out there."

It was a valid point, one Jim had struggled with ever since the idea he was carrying out today had occurred to him. "It won't be easy. But I can handle protecting Blair a lot better than I can losing him. I learned that the hard way. And that's what we're heading for, Simon. The dissertation's too near completion. Hell, Blair told me himself that he's been stalling. When it's finally finished..." He shrugged. "I just want to have things settled before then. Not leave anything to chance."

The Chief of Police came back in. "There's no way you heard that."

"I like the Mongolian beef from The Great Wall, but frankly, I think the sweet and sour shrimp's better." Jim hid a smile at the Chief's look of amazement and added, "I think your secretary will enjoy her bird's nest soup."

"How...?"

Simon pointed out, "We explained it all. Jim's a Sentinel. Enhanced senses - all five of them. I'm sure you can see how beneficial Jim's abilities are to our department. Of course, you realize what's happened today stays in this room, for the safety of Jim and Blair."

"Of course," the Chief agreed. "I'm grateful to you, Captain Banks, for managing to keep this out of the media for as long as you have."

"Blair's a huge part of that," Simon agreed. "And protecting Jim's secret must continue to be our number one priority. Now, can we talk about the future of Blair Sandburg?"

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

The next Friday night was clear and cool, the perfect evening for friends and food. The Major Crimes team gathered at the loft, each member bringing his or her own specialty. Even the office staff had been invited, and some of Blair's university friends and co-workers were there. The apartment was brimming with friends and colleagues.

Blair was in his element. He bounced from group to group like a rubber ball, carrying on conversation, serving appetizers, and making sure everyone had the drinks they needed. He was so glad Jim had agreed to this party. In fact, when he thought about it, had it really been his idea at all? Jim had thrown out a few comments about not seeing their friends nearly often enough, and Blair had taken it from there. It didn't matter whose idea it had been, did it? Their friends were here, everyone was safe, and the night was young.

Something was up with Jim, though. It wasn't Sentinel-related, or at least, he didn't think it was. No, Jim's expression was more along the lines of 'cat that swallowed the canary', as though he knew a secret that, so far, he had not yet shared. Not that anyone else would have noticed, Blair mused as he put some more sandwiches on a platter. Nothing really overt at all. Just little things. Like the little twitches at the corners of Jim's lips. The way his blue eyes twinkled, especially when he looked at his Guide.

Maybe he's just glad the whole undercover thing's over. Maybe he's actually relaxing for once and enjoying the evening. I hope so. He's been through a lot the past month himself with 'the case'.

He couldn't quite bring himself to say her name yet, so in Blair's mind, the experience was simply 'the case'. At least for now.

Sort of like saying 'the fountain' instead of words that were so much more painful.

Purposefully, Blair made himself change the directions of his thoughts as he carried the sandwiches into the living room where they were quickly pounced upon by the guests. Grinning, he circulated around the room, visiting with friends.

He was chatting with a co-worker from Rainier when there was a tapping on glass, the universal sign for attention. Blair followed the sound and was surprised to see Jim and Simon standing by the balcony doors, both tapping their glasses and calling for quiet. Moments later, all eyes were on the two men.

Jim began. "First, thanks to you all for coming. Your friendship means a lot to us both." He nodded toward Blair. "Come on up here, Chief."

Threading his way through the crowd of friends, Blair joined Jim. "What's going on, man?" he whispered. Jim ignored him and continued talking.

"I'm not much on public speaking, believe it or not." He paused as the crowd chuckled. "So I'll get right to the point."

Jim turned and faced Blair. "I told you during this last case that I'm proud of you, Chief, and I meant that. What you did this past month was above and beyond the call of what you're expected to do for the department. Way beyond. You put yourself right in the line of fire, and you handled yourself like a pro. I know seasoned cops who wouldn't have been as cool under pressure as you were. When things went sour, you kept your head, and you survived. Just like you always do."

He gestured to the crowd around them. "Lots of these people can attest to the fact that it's been a long time since I had a partner. An official partner, that is. You've been my partner day in and day out for the past three years, Chief, and in doing that, you've put up with my crap and my temper and my..." Jim paused and smiled briefly. "... my fear response. Not only on the job, but here at home, too. I don't know a single cop in the department who would have done that. You've been my partner, Blair, and my friend. The best partner and the best friend I could have asked for."

The words and my Guide hung unspoken between them, but Blair understood clearly. What the hell was going on? Jim looked positively happy, and Simon was standing there beside him beaming from ear to ear. Definitely not your average run-of-the-mill occurrence. "Jim?"

"It's time we all recognized what you've done for the department, Chief. And for me." Jim looked over at his captain. "Simon?"

"Sandburg, Jim's absolutely right. You've been a valuable asset to my unit ever since you came on the scene. This last operation only underscores what a vital part of Major Crimes you have become."

Simon pulled some papers from his jacket. "This is a job offer, Blair. As a part-time, paid consultant to the department, to be assigned to Major Crimes as Jim's permanent partner. When you finish your degree, you only have to say the word, and the job can convert to full-time."

Simon was beaming, his eyes glistening a little too brightly. "No Academy. No gun. No haircut."

Time slowed to a near halt. Blair looked from Jim to Simon and back again. He knew his expression had to reflect his amazement, but he was powerless to even attempt to cover his stunned disbelief.

Simon laughed, and the crowd of friends gathered in the living room joined in. "Sandburg is speechless. Let this day go down in history!"

"What do you say, Chief?" Jim was smiling, but behind the smile, Blair read his friend's nervous anticipation.

Taking a deep breath, Blair returned the grin. "I say 'where do I sign?'. Man, this is just too much. Simon, I know what you must have gone through to swing this and I appreciate it. Really, man, I do."

Amid the cheers and applause, Simon leaned over and whispered in Blair's ear. "You need to talk with Jim about what it took to bring this about, son."

What was he talking about? Shooting a quick glance at Jim, Blair found his friend's expression completely unreadable. He'd find out what Simon meant just as soon as he could get Jim alone.

That didn't prove possible for nearly an hour. Blair was too busy fielding congratulatory backslaps from the Major Crimes team and defending his choices to his Rainier colleagues. Walking the tightrope between two such diverse worlds was seldom simple.

At last, though, things settled down, and Blair slipped out the door, snagging an old quilt from his room on his way. Once in the hallway, he breathed a sigh of relief and headed straight up.

To the roof.

He knew Jim would find him. He always did. The only question was how long it would take.

It was a beautiful night. While he waited, he might as well make himself comfortable. Blair spread out the coverlet, letting his fingers trace the well-worn fabric. It was the first thing Jim had given him when he moved in. At the time, it had been merely something to throw on his bed in lieu of a real spread. Over the years, it had covered him when he felt cold, warmed him when he shivered with fever, and comforted him when the days had been too long and hard. Now, the old quilt signified home.

He really was home. Even as he settled on the quilt, Blair could hardly believe it. He had a real home. Real friends. And now, a real job. All the things he'd longed for his whole life through had, on this beautiful night, reached fruition.

And one of the toughest decisions of his life had been made.

Blair laughed aloud, then on impulse, stretched out on his back and gazed up at the stars. How hard he'd struggled with that decision, only to find it made so quickly and easily tonight.

When the time is right, all things fall into place.

There really is order in the universe.

To everything there is a season...

The door to the roof creaked open, and Blair smiled, never taking his eyes off the stars. "Hey, man. What took you so long?"

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

Jim smiled and shook his head as he sat down beside his friend. "We got company down there, Chief. What are you doing up here?"

"Look at them, Jim," Blair said softly, his eyes turned heavenward. "Isn't it incredible? Even with all the city lights." He glanced over at the Sentinel. "I bet for you, it's totally indescribable."

The quilt was spread beside the back wall of the rooftop area. Jim leaned back, wrapping his arms around his knees. Beside him, Blair's long hair flared out like a chestnut flame, and he could feel the warmth of his Guide beside him. "It's like a million tiny fires," he mused. "Here, it doesn't look so stunning, but out in the wilderness. I wish you could see it the way I do, Blair. You're the one who would really appreciate the gift of Sentinel senses. Sometimes I wonder if it shouldn't have been you instead of me..."

"No, man. No way. The Sentinel's job is to protect the tribe, and that's you, my brother. I'm just here to lend a hand... to watch your back. Besides, you describe what you sense to me, and in a way, that's like my seeing and hearing it all for myself. Next best thing to being there, y'know?"

Blair's attitude never ceased to amaze him. Never selfish, very seldom pessimistic. Sandburg definitely kept him centered, in more ways than one.

"So, you okay with the job thing?" Jim figured he'd feel his friend out on that one before popping his next surprise.

"Oh, yeah!" The enthusiasm was definitely not feigned. "It's more than I'd hoped. A great motivation to go ahead and finish my dissertation. For the first time in my life, I'm ready to be done with school." Blair grinned, and Jim heard his soft chuckle. "Never thought I'd see the day when I'd actually be finished with college. My Ph.D. at last. It really is a 'terminal' degree."

"That brings up the second half of tonight's surprise, Chief." Jim looked down at his friend. Blair was still reclined, and he couldn't see Jim watching him. At those words, though, Blair tilted his head back until he was looking up at Jim.

"Second half? Hey, man, what you did was enough already. By the way, before we have any more surprises, Simon said I should ask you exactly what you did to get the Chief to sign off on this deal."

Damn it, Simon...

He'd been hoping to keep it a secret a bit longer. Oh, well, no use trying to hide the truth from Sandburg anyway. He should know better.

"I told him I was a Sentinel."

Blair shot bolt upright, eyes wide and staring. "You did what? Oh, Jim, tell me you didn't!"

He hadn't expected to see the undisguised shock in Blair's eyes. Surely the kid must have guessed?

Jim shrugged. "I figured it was time. I had to justify wanting to keep you around, after all. I mean, you're a likeable guy, Chief, but they weren't going to pay you a salary for your winning personality. And..."

He stopped. Looking into those startled blue eyes, so open and honest, it was suddenly hard to continue.

"What?" Blair prodded.

Jim took the plunge. "And I was afraid that after your dissertation was complete, if you published it, that you'd want to move on. To bigger and better things. I figured that if I was going to convince you to stay, I needed to have something that could stack up. At least, halfway. The Chief was pretty surprised. Guess we've done a good job of covering things up after all."

"You thought I'd finish my diss and just go? Leave you behind just like that?" A note of hurt crept into Blair's voice. "Damn, Jim, don't you know better than that by now? I'm here for you, man. Not my diss. Not my career. Yeah, that was it at first, but that hasn't been the reason for such a long time now. If it had been, I'd have written the damn thing and been gone years ago. We're friends, Jim. Partners. At least, that's how I see it. I... I thought you knew that."

Jim reached out and cupped Blair's neck in his palm, squeezing gently. "I do know that. I just forget sometimes. Keep reminding me, okay?"

The hurt vanished from the familiar eyes and voice. "Okay... I can do that." Blair was quiet for a moment. "So the Chief understands about keeping it all a secret? He knows how important that is?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah, he gets it. It's good to have him know, really. Might make lots of things easier, especially for Simon."

Blair cocked his head, and Jim released him with a last squeeze. His neck was so warm under all that hair. How could he ever complain about being cold?

"So, what's the second half of the surprise?"

Jim reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope. "Here."

Blair took it and stared down at the envelope for a moment, then he looked back up at Jim. "What's this?"

"Open it."

When he looked inside, Blair gasped. "Jim? What the hell...?"

"It's your rent money for the past few years." Suddenly feeling almost embarrassed by what he'd done, Jim explained quickly, "I've been investing it for you each month. I didn't really need the money, but I knew you'd never live here without paying something, so I put it back for you."

"Why give it to me now?" Again, the indigo eyes were wide with surprise and tinged with more than a little confusion.

"How fast could you complete your dissertation if you didn't have to teach, keep office hours, and grade papers?"

Blair considered. "It has to go through my committee then pass approval with the graduate school. Six months. Maybe less."

"That's what this is for, then. For you to live on while you write your dissertation. What's left over is for you to begin your new life, Blair. Hopefully, that will be here with me. If you want that. If not, then maybe you can find a place nearby..." Jim was out of words. He'd laid it all on the line this time, offered the best he had to give. He only hoped it was enough.

Blair stared down at the check, then his eyes lifted to meet Jim's. When he spoke, his voice was ragged with emotion. "Of course, I want to stay here. This is... home. You are home for me, Jim. My home. Don't you know that? Do I need to remind you of that, too?"

Jim broke their locked gaze, but only for a moment as he looked up at the stars. Which ones were his 'lucky stars'? He needed to thank them. When his eyes found Blair's, they were swimming in unshed tears. "Sometimes," he admitted. "Sometimes I just need to know that you're not going to leave."

"I'm not going anywhere, man." Blair's voice was soft, filled with compassion. "Trust me."

"I do, Chief. Believe me. I do."

A slow smile crept across Blair's lips. "You've given me two huge gifts tonight, Jim. Now I have one for you."

It was Jim's turn to be uncertain. "What...?"

"I'm going to accept your gift." Blair held up the check. "By the way, I don't think I said 'thank you' yet. For all of it. I really, truly appreciate this, man. It's so much more than anyone's ever done for me in my life. And I'm going to use it to finish my degree, then I'm going to come work for the P.D. full-time. Not as a cop, but as a consultant. I hope I'll be useful in lots of ways, not just to you, but that'll always be my main priority. You know that."

"Anyway, your surprise..." He set the check down on the quilt between them, then Blair leaned forward, looking intently into Jim's eyes.

"I'm not going to write my dissertation about Sentinels."

Jim felt that the slightest breeze would send him tumbling over. "What are you talking about? That's all you've ever wanted..."

"No," Blair interrupted softly. "You're all I ever wanted. To find a real Sentinel. To learn from him and about him. Well, I got my Sentinel and so much more! The friendship... a home... a job I love. I don't need to write that paper any more, Jim. I'm going to write about closed societies as reflected in a city police department. It really is interesting, and I have enough data to write two dissertations. Most importantly, it's safe. For you. I was stupid to think I could pull off writing about my research with a real Sentinel and not have anyone figure out that it's you. I wanted it so much, I guess I deluded myself into believing I could do it. Dumb. Totally dumb. Now I know better, and it's not such a great loss after all. The really important things in my life aren't even connected to that dissertation at all."

"One day, I'll put the Sentinel stuff down in a book. When you retire, we'll move to a deserted island, somewhere nobody can find us, and I'll publish it. The world can learn about Sentinels, other researchers can follow up on what I discovered, and none of it will touch you. None of it will touch us."

Blair's eyes were luminous in the light of the full moon that had crept up over the horizon while they had been talking. Almost hynotically, his voice spun its magic web over his Sentinel. "See, I thought the whole purpose of my research was to learn about you so I could become rich and famous." His voice grew husky for a heartbeat. "Once upon a time..."

Then Blair laughed softly, and the huskiness was gone, leaving only a shimmering light in its wake. He reached out and captured Jim's hand and squeezed it firmly. "I was so wrong, man. Its purpose - my purpose - is to learn about you so I can help you. That's what a Guide's all about, and I'm not just a grad student anymore, Jim. I'm your Guide. It's who I am and what I am and everything I ever want to be, all rolled into one."

Jim's heart filled with relief... with joy. "You're sure? Giving up a life's dream isn't easy, Chief. Can you live with all this?"

"I can live with it," Blair said easily. "More than that, I can thrive in it. I can teach a class or two at Rainier if I want. They always need extra staff in the fall and summer. It's the best of both worlds." He held Jim's gaze confidently. "It's what I want."

Jim covered their joined hands with his other palm and felt the pulse of their lives merge and become one.

How had they arrived at this night? Just a few years ago, they had been strangers, so different. Now, it seemed they were both headed in the same direction at the same time at last.

Together.

Laughing, Blair scrambled up. Tugging on Jim's hand, he feigned great effort in pulling the larger man to his feet. As if controlled by the same master hand, their eyes rose upward to the stars, shining so brightly above.

"Once upon a time..." Blair whispered.

Jim turned his gaze to his friend's profile. Blair's eyes shimmered with flashes of diamonds in the starshine, and his hair was tinted with silver from the moonlight. "So, does this particular fairy tale have a happy ending, Chief?" he asked, only half in jest.

The star-bright eyes met his, glowing with joy. "Oh, yeah, a really happy ending. But this isn't the ending, man. It's just the beginning."

Laughing, Jim slung an arm over his friend's shoulders and guided him toward the stairs. Below, the sounds of celebration called them home.

Finis...

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