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.

Ritual Sacrifice

Missing Scenes from The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg

by Arianna

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

"Today, children are sacrificed on the altar of abuse and neglect, but in ancient tribal customs it was a matter of solemnity. Ritual sacrifice, by definition, means 'surrendering of value', something that was morally, physically and sexually uncorrupted."
Blair Sandburg, Murder 101

Stunned, Blair slowed to a halt as he watched Ellison stride angrily away from him, his partner's last cutting words and heavily sarcastic tone smothering his own instinctive anger at the disaster he hadn't been able to contain and Jim's incredible accusations. He'd expected Jim to be angry, even explosively angry, sure, but he hadn't anticipated the blatant, bitter distrust and furious disgust. Standing alone on the windy street, he suddenly felt lost and chilled all the way to his soul.

Swallowing against the nausea that cramped in his gut, he took a deep breath and raked his hair back from his face. Completely unable to deal with Jim's reaction, and what that reaction meant, he tried to focus instead on the problem at hand. He couldn't believe how far it had gone so fast, how out of control and disastrous everything had gotten in less than twenty-four hours despite his efforts to contain the damage his mother had wrought. Shit. Shit. Shit. The media had the paper now? Parts of it anyway, enough to create immense damage - obviously more than enough to blow Jim's secret to the wind. What the hell were they going to do? Feeling disoriented, helpless in the face of Jim's righteous and very understandable anger, furious with his mother and that asshole, Sid Graham, Senior fucking Editor of Berkshire Publishing, he turned to walk slowly across the pavement to the harbor's edge, where he stared out to sea and tried to think coherently. Flying to New York to beat the crap out of Graham had a certain appeal but wouldn't help anything. Restraining orders? Lawsuits? Not fast enough, and would only be more grist for the media's mill.

But his thoughts splintered, fragmented and disjointed, and he couldn't concentrate on generating options that were practical, doable and, above all, would have immediate results.

The hollow pain in his chest from their confrontation was too great to get past or ignore.

Jim actually thought he had done this, and done it deliberately with the intent of becoming as rich and famous as possible, and with utter disregard for their friendship and the implications the breach of trust and secrecy held for Jim's life. Jim really believed that about him - that he was capable of such wanton treachery and careless cruelty, such malicious, willful deceit. The memory of Jim's voice and expression - the hurt, the sense of betrayal and contempt in Ellison's eyes, and the all too clear conviction that Blair had deliberately deceived him for personal gain - devastated and overwhelmed him, and bleak despair thickened in his throat.

Jim thought their friendship, the most precious reality of Blair's life was, and maybe always had been, a lie.

And if Jim could think that, really believe that… maybe it was. Maybe it had never existed, not from Jim's perspective anyway.

Crossing his arms, he bowed his head and fought the burn in his eyes.

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

Later, as events unfolded at breakneck speed after that wretched confrontation along the boardwalk, Sandburg wasn't surprised by the silent treatment and cold shoulder Ellison gave him whenever they were in the same room. He tried to tell himself that it was only anger and defensiveness on Jim's part, behavior that was understandable, even predictable - it wasn't the first time, after all, that fear had led Jim to accuse him of a betrayal of trust. Given that Jim's whole life had been turned upside down, he couldn't honestly blame his friend for being icily furious, not at all. But the rigid contempt and disgust in Ellison's manner hurt like a blade in his heart just the same. And nothing he said or did seemed to slow or deflect the media juggernaut that only accelerated when the possibility of a Nobel nomination for the science award became public and the story hit the news. Sid kept offering more and more money, as if he couldn't understand the word, 'no' and just thought Blair was playing hard to get. Blair tried to find some irony in the fact that Jim and Sid seemed to share the same delusion, but the thought held no wry or even bitter amusement, only profound sorrow. Three million dollars, a possible movie deal and the professional acclaim that came with the rumor of the prestigious nomination - he could see why Sid might be confused by his persistent, adamant refusals to even discuss a possible deal.

Most people would be over the moon with excitement.

Blair just felt sick.

Sid he could understand. But how could Jim believe that about him? He felt as if the underpinnings of his world, the foundation he stood upon, had crumbled beneath his feet. Then again, he sighed despondently as he followed Ellison downstairs to the crowd at the rally on the street, Jim probably felt exactly the same way. Simon wanted him to stick with his partner, and so he tried, but Jim didn't want to have anything to do with him - treating him like some kind of pariah and making it abundantly clear his help wasn't needed, and certainly wasn't wanted, before storming away.

But then, only minutes later, the reporters surrounded Ellison, yelling questions at him about being a sentinel and got in the way of him capturing Zeller in the act of his second attempt to murder the union leader, Barclay. The sound of a shot split the night. Screams and panic erupted, flashbulbs burst like fireworks, and video-camera lights strobed the scene creating splintered shadows and capturing stark, if meaningless images of fear, anger, speculation and, on the faces of a very few, genuine grief at the apparent assassination. Sandburg could see Jim flinching from the over-stimulation of the chaos around him, but he was too far away to help block the sensory assault or even to reach out to ground him. Oh, what might have been a disaster wasn't - Sandburg knew that - it was only the head of the decoy dummy that had gotten blown to smithereens. But that didn't mean that the setup had been successful. Far from it. Jim had wanted to capture Zeller in the act, but all hope of that was lost in the confusion. Ellison glared accusingly at him as Jim fought his way clear of the reporters that surrounded him, still shouting questions at him, only this time with a caustic edge, as if they'd expected more from 'a sentinel'.

Helplessly watching Jim finally break free to lope into the building, Blair knew he had to find a way to stop the craziness. But he didn't have a clue what to do, wasn't even at all sure that there was anything that could ever put the evil genie back in the bottle. It was all happening too fast. He couldn't seem to think straight. And Jim's barely contained fury and contempt for him short-circuited his brain, leaving him reeling with hurt and grief.

They didn't speak when they got back to the loft that night. Jim immediately retreated mutely with stiff anger to his room upstairs. His mother disappeared into his room after assuring him with obviously forced cheeriness that everything would be alright - yeah, right - though she sniffled a little with helpless sorrow about the unfortunate strain between them all. Exhausted, he stretched out on the couch but remained awake all night, staring into the darkness, his fragmented thoughts and tangled emotions a chaotic blend of fractured images and memories. The next morning, despite the tension in the loft that was so thick it couldn't be cut with the sharpest knife, his mother still didn't seem to grasp the magnitude of the fallout to her ill-considered, if good-intentioned, actions. Jim was being carefully courteous to her while, literally, keeping his back to Blair, acting as if Sandburg wasn't present, even as if he didn't exist. Blair could see that Naomi's awkward if sincere peacemaking efforts of tea and expressions of regret, and her cajoling of them to not let what had happened come between them, weren't helping at all. He tried to hold his peace, tried not to aggravate the situation further, but when Jim talked about his fervent desire to just turn off his senses and go back to being a good cop, he couldn't remain silent.

"It's not who you are," he interjected, his voice thin with strain.

Like a match to a powder keg, that just set Ellison off, all the frustration and helpless anger spewing out, directed squarely at him. He wanted to yell back. Wanted to unleash his own fury and hurt at what Jim evidently believed about him. But there wasn't anything he could say in his own defense, because the breach of trust and secrecy was, ultimately, his responsibility. When all was said and done, he'd written the draft without first determining how to safeguard Jim's identity; and even if he had securely locked the printed copy away, in the confusion of her unexpected visit and his hurry to meet Jim, rushing because he was already late, he'd forgotten to close the electronic file and turn off his computer before leaving his mother alone in the loft. But all the hollow excuses and rationales in the world didn't change his culpability. It was his fault that Jim's trust in him had been abrogated; worse, it was his fault that Jim's life had been turned upside down and inside out. So he stood silent and took the rage directed solely at him, absorbing it, not flinching away. When Ellison stormed off, slamming the loft door closed behind him, Blair gazed miserably across the room at his mother. She looked sorry, certainly, now that it was far too late, and he knew she wanted comfort and reassurance, but he had none to give. He had no words, at least none that would make her feel any better, and shouting out his own pain at her for what she had done would only aggravate an already intolerable situation.

Holding a tight rein on his emotions, he turned to grab his jacket off the hook on the wall. "I have to go," he muttered as he left.

By the time he'd clattered down the steps in Ellison's wake, Jim had already driven off and Blair barely caught a glimpse of the truck disappearing around the corner. For a moment, he stopped and wondered if maybe he should just stay out of Jim's way. Upstairs, the older man had told him to let it go - let what go? The desire to keep helping his best friend to be the best he could be, especially now when they were in the middle of such a dangerous case and Jim was under such pressure he could scarcely concentrate, let alone use his senses effectively? Zeller was a deadly adversary and, even if the assassin had been fooled into thinking he'd made the hit, they still needed to catch him. Or was Jim talking about something much more fundamental than the research and the tests, more even than about being a sentinel? Had he meant that Blair should let their friendship go? Given the way he'd been acting even after knowing that Blair hadn't deliberately set him up, and his parting shot as he'd left the loft, it sure sounded that way. But Sandburg couldn't just walk away and leave Jim to deal with the mess on his own.

So he squared his shoulders and got into his own car to follow Ellison to the police department.

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

Blair blinked and jerked reflexively at the loud smacking sound of something hitting the doorjamb beside his head as he walked into the Major Crime squad room, and then gaped at Megan falling forward, hitting the desk hard before she dropped to the floor. A scarlet stain bloomed and grew on her sweater and he instinctively rushed forward, dropping beside her to press his palm down hard upon the wound. Feeling as if everything was surreal and nothing made any sense, he shouted desperately for help. It was chaos, and he couldn't figure out what had happened. There'd been no sound of a gunshot, only of breaking glass. It was a moment before he realized that Simon had also been hurt, but he didn't know how badly. Someone brought blankets to drape over Conner and Captain Banks, and he could hear Jim calling desperately to Simon, though he couldn't see either man from where he was crouched beside Megan. She looked shocked and scared, her eyes wide with confusion as she gasped for air, her slender fingers digging into his hand when the pain erupted past the initial numbness.

"You'll be okay," he assured her, his voice quaking. "Just breathe, Megan, okay? You'll be alright."

He heard the sirens wailing from the street below and a few minutes later the EMTs arrived. They cut open the neck of her sweater and slapped a thick, padded pressure bandage over her wound before setting an oxygen mask over her face and taking her vitals. Blair stumbled back out of the way, and lifted his gaze to check on what was happening in the inner office. Simon was laying facedown, more EMTs working feverishly over him, and there was so much blood. Pale as a ghost, Jim was standing to one side, looking shell-shocked as he stared down at his wounded friend and Blair shuddered, wondering just how badly the captain had been hurt. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, anxious, scared for their colleagues and friends. Stunned by the suddenness, the sheer unexpectedness of the attack, he felt numb with appalled horror. Trying to figure out what had happened, he looked at the smashed glass in the office windows, then at the splintered hole in the doorjamb and shivered when he finally realized that a single bullet had felled Simon and Megan, and had very nearly also blasted through his head. If he'd walked into the squad room even less than a half-second earlier, he'd've been in the line of fire, too, and would probably already be dead.

Swallowing the bile that burned in his throat, his lips parting to drag in deep, slow breaths in an effort to remain calm, he turned back to Jim and saw his partner staring at him. The blame written so clearly in Jim's eyes was terrible, hitting him like a physical blow. He lurched back half a step before his gaze dropped to Simon and then to Megan as his shock-dulled brain tried to process what had happened and why.

This was his fault? Why?

And then it hit him and he sank down on a desk, unable to stand. Bending forward, he crossed his arms tightly against his chest to hold in his scream of helpless, hopeless rage and guilt and unutterable grief, and shook with the despair of knowing that it was his fault.

Because of his damned paper.

Because the media had got in Jim's face and blinded him with the camera lights, and he hadn't been able to stop Zeller the night before.

His friends were swiftly loaded onto the gurneys and hastily pushed into the hallway and onto the elevator that Rafe was holding open. Jim and Joel brushed past him, loping to the stairs, and Blair snapped out of his shock and self-absorbed guilt to race after them. At that moment, he knew it wasn't about him and his feelings didn't matter a damn; it was about them.

Dear God, he prayed desperately as he pounded down the steps, let them be okay. Please, please, let them be okay.

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

Jim and Blair stood stonily silent in the hall in front of the half-glassed wall, watching the Emergency personnel fight to keep Simon alive and strong enough to be taken into surgery to repair the extensive damage done by the bullet. Another team was working on Megan in a room down the hall.

"Nobody expected this," Blair murmured hoarsely, feeling as if he was locked in some never-ending nightmare that just kept getting worse and worse.

"I should have," Jim husked.

Listening to his partner take responsibility for what hadn't been his fault, and hearing Taggart brokenly assert that it shouldn't ever have happened, Blair's chest tightened. He knew whose fault it was, and it sure in hell wasn't Jim's. And Joel was right. If Jim had been able to do his job the evening before, it wouldn't have happened. Striving to push his own useless emotions aside, knowing Ellison shouldn't be going after Zeller alone, he offered, very nearly pleaded, to help.

But Jim was pretty clear that his help was neither needed nor wanted, and he stood frozen in place when Ellison stalked away from him. Blair's desperately held hope that they might, somehow, find a way back from the abyss and reclaim something of the relationship they'd had, died then. Utterly devastated, he finally accepted that there was no longer, and never would be again, a place for him at Jim's side. Closing his eyes, he bowed his head, striving to stop shaking, to not fall apart. He pressed his trembling lips together and dragged in one slow deep breath after another until the first fierce waves of grief subsided. And then he wretchedly turned back toward the window, to maintain his anxious vigil over Simon.

Megan was taken to surgery, but the staff continued to work on Simon to stabilize him. Finally, half an hour later, he was also wheeled into the corridor and to the elevator, to be taken upstairs to the operating theatre. One of the departing physicians advised Sandburg with blunt weariness that it would be hours - if he survived the surgery - before Banks would be taken to the ICU. Sick with fear for Simon's life, Blair dazedly made his way through the corridors to the exit. For long minutes, he stood just outside the wide double glass doors staring at the sky and feeling utterly lost and alone, unable to think, not sure where he should be or what he should be doing. When he looked down at his hands, the sight of Megan's blood staining his palm and fingers slammed into him with the force of a freight train, shaking him loose from the surreal numbing effects of the shock of all that had happened, leaving only brutal reality behind.

Jim's life was a train wreck, Connor was badly hurt and Simon might very well die. He blinked back tears and swallowed hard, gasping for breath as pain and grief flooded his chest and twisted in his gut.

Too far.

It had all gone way too far.

Too many people's lives had been compromised; too many friends had been hurt.

The madness had to stop.

He'd stood around, allowing himself to be stunned and overcome by events and emotions for far too long, when he should have been devising solutions. He had to get a grip. Disgusted with his general uselessness since that first call from Graham, Blair bitterly told himself that it was well beyond time to admit that if he couldn't think straight enough to work out the options for himself, then he had to talk to someone who could help him focus on what could be done to clean up the mess his paper had engendered.

Someone he respected.

Someone he could trust.

Determinedly swiping the moisture from his eyes with his fingertips, he set off across the parking lot toward his car.

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

"Eli, do you have a few minutes?" Sandburg asked after rapping lightly on Dr. Eli Stoddard's open office door. The lean, elderly but still very vigorous professor looked up from a document he was studying and removed his reading glasses when he recognized his visitor.

"Blair, by all means, come in, come in," Stoddard called as he waved Sandburg to the chair in front of his paper-strewn desk. "How are you holding up, son?" the older man asked gently, profound concern in his intelligent eyes as he studied his protégé's pale, solemn face and dejected demeanor, while Blair entered, carefully closed the door and settled stiffly in the comfortable leather armchair.

Shaking his head slowly, his gaze wandering the bookshelves that were loaded with impressive tomes and invaluable artifacts, Blair's voice was strained with his effort to maintain some semblance of control as he replied, "Not so good, to tell you the truth." Taking a breath, he shifted forward to the edge of the chair and met Stoddard's gaze. "It's a disaster, Eli. A complete, fucking disaster - uh, excuse the language." He stopped, swallowed, and started again. "Mom sent the first completed draft of my dissertation without my knowledge to an old friend of hers - she thought she was being helpful - and, uh, this guy, Sid Graham from Berkshire Publishing, just won't back off," he blurted, stammering a little with all the emotions that he was struggling so hard to contain, his hands adding emphasis with sharp, jerky motions in the air. "I t-told him to destroy the document and I've refused everything he's offered, but he w-won't s-stop. He just won't stop! I couldn't believe it," he continued, his voice rising as he spoke faster and faster, letting it all out in a rush, "when he released excerpts to the media after I'd expressly forbidden him to do anything with the paper." Realizing that he was close to losing it, Blair stopped again, and took a breath, forcing himself to go slower. "And now… now Jim can't do his job and a killer that could have been caught so easily if the media hadn't gotten in the way last night has shot two of my friends. Oh, God, Eli, one of them, Simon Banks, might die." His voice cracked, and he stopped to regain his fragile control; his jaw locked and his lips pressed firmly together as he sought to swallow the enormous lump in his throat. "I've… I've massively screwed up Jim's life and people are getting hurt, maybe killed, all because… because I wasn't careful enough," he grated. "It's all happened so fast - I can't think straight. I've got to make things right, but I don't know what to do to fix this, or if it even can be fixed."

Stoddard nodded, his expression grave with compassion and understanding. "I thought it must be something like that, that your dissertation was revealed by someone other than yourself, I mean," he murmured thoughtfully, speaking with slow deliberation to give his young and clearly devastated friend time to calm himself. "It made no sense to me that you would release the draft before it had come to me and to the rest of your committee for defense. But, Blair," he hesitated, regret resonating in his voice, "you can't undo what's been done."

"I know that," Blair retorted impatiently, but then his gaze dropped in apology and he shook his head. "But there has to be something that can be done to mitigate the damage. What are my options now?" he asked, his voice cracking. "How do I… how do I make things right?"

Heaving a sigh, Eli leaned forward to cross his slender, austere hands on the desk. "I can issue a press release that affirms that this document has been misrepresented and in no way constitutes your formal dissertation, but that still leaves the document out there, and it needs some explanation. Perhaps, something as simple as suggesting it's a draft novel, a work of fiction that was mistakenly assumed to be factual, would suffice."

Blair chewed his lip and then gave a short shake of his head. "I don't know if the press would give you the coverage I need on this, Eli - no disrespect. It's just that I don't think they want to hear that the paper isn't real." Pausing to squint at the ceiling, thinking it through, he added despairingly, "And there was too much data in the document, too much that was presented in a purely scientific and academic manner. Nobody would seriously believe it was intended to be fictional in the first place."

"Well," Stoddard offered then, "I could help you find a good lawyer to sue Berkshire Publishing for releasing excerpts without your permission, and to put a restraining order on the media with the threat of suing them, too, if they didn't back off. That would at least muzzle them for now." Forcing a small smile, he added, "You'd win the case, you know, and get enough in damages to pay off all your debts."

Blair's lips thinned and he again shook his head. "Thanks, Eli, but this isn't about me," he husked. "I thought of suing the bastard as soon as the story broke, but a lawsuit would only make things worse. And we've got free speech, remember? There's no way to stop speculation in the press or television news coverage. If anything, there'd be even more media controversy and hype, and Jim… Jim would be caught in the middle of it." Looking out the window, he went on bleakly, "It's just so hugely, incredibly, unfair that he's paying the price of my mistake." Shifting his gaze back to his mentor and adviser, he shrugged at having abandoned the now useless pretense they'd maintained for years that Stoddard didn't know who the sentinel was. The massive lump was back in his throat and he had to swallow before he could rasp hoarsely, "I know you probably guessed Jim was the subject of the thesis a long time ago… but I really, really wanted to protect his identity, you know?"

"I know," the professor acknowledged gently. "I think I've known ever since you turned down the project in Borneo, more than two years ago. By then, he was more than a research subject to you, more even than the embodiment of your dream of finding a sentinel, wasn't he? He'd become your friend."

Nodding, Sandburg looked down and fidgeted with his fingers. "Thank you for never betraying him," he said softly. Shrugging, he lifted his gaze back to Eli's and sighed. "Jim… Jim's my best friend and is one of the best men I've ever known. Oh, he's not perfect, none of us are. But he tries so hard to do what's right and it means so much to him to be able to serve and protect the people of this city. It's his life, Eli. His dream." Pausing, he looked out into the afternoon light, and up into the sky. "He can't do his job with things the way they are. And… and it could be really dangerous for him if anything about his sensory vulnerabilities gets made public."

"What does Detective Ellison suggest be done?" Stoddard asked quietly.

Huffing a breath, Blair shrugged as he replied with a hopeless tone, "You mean, when he's talking to me at all?" Disgusted with the notes of self-pity and grief that resonated in his voice, he locked down his own pain and said more distantly, "Well, he tells me to take the money and the fame and… and just go away. And he says he just wants to turn his senses off, so he can go back to being an ordinary cop who was respected for doing a damned good job." Scraping his hands over his face, raking his hair back behind his ears, he grated wearily, "But it doesn't work that way, and it would be wrong for him to… to deny what he is, to despise what are such incredible gifts. He's got every right to loathe the sight of me, I accept that. But there must be a way to give him his life and privacy back. There just has to be."

"Well, if you're certain you can't make a case for this document being fictional, you know as well as I do that there's only one option now that would render the whole discussion moot and vouchsafe his future privacy and security," Eli responded carefully, his voice carrying a cautionary undertone. "You also know what that option would entail for you."

"Total and public denial of the validity of the paper," Blair stated softly, an ache in his voice as he finally faced what some part of him had known would be necessary from the moment the media had accosted them on the street the day before. "Labeling myself a liar and a cheat."

"I don't recommend that," the professor replied firmly. When Sandburg flicked a look up at him, he continued, "That's too much, Blair. You'd be destroying yourself, and there's no guarantee even then that people won't wonder, won't speculate. Say it was fiction or that you were using Ellison's name to protect the real source. Or… or say it was all misconstrued, baffle the media with examples of how common heightened senses are and all the evidence you've accrued over the years. Let the furor die down - it will, you know. This is news today but next week, most people will have forgotten."

"Yeah?" Blair challenged bitterly. "You think that saying the paper is about some other guy and I only used Jim's name because, hey, he's my best friend and my roommate and, oh, I was only riding around with him on the job for the past three years cause it was fun, would convince anyone, let alone the media, that the document isn't worth any more attention or that he isn't the sentinel in question? Would be enough to get them to back off such a great story? I sincerely doubt it, to tell you the truth. And I really don't think Jim, or his family, or the people he works with are going to forget. I don't think that all the lawyers of all the criminals he's caught will just let it go when they might be able to contest how evidence was gathered." He paused before adding hopelessly, "And even if I could make a case for it all being 'misconstrued', I'd need Jim's cooperation and agreement to do that - and… and that's not likely to happen, not anytime soon, anyway."

When the professor looked away and shrugged, Blair's gaze softened with regret for having lashed out at the one person who was trying to help him make sense of the situation, and help him to see what possibilities for containment might exist. Eli was worried about him and only trying to help him. He'd come for advice and he'd gotten it. But having the options laid out dispassionately only made it increasingly clear to Sandburg that saving his career and credibility as well as securing Jim's privacy and security were mutually incompatible objectives. It had gone too far and he needed to fix things too fast to permit much mitigation on his own behalf. His lips thinned and then he said brokenly, "I'm sorry, Eli. You've done so much for me; taught me so much. I know… I know that some of the fallout is likely to splatter on you and I really, really regret that. I just, uh, I just think that I have to stop it now, completely. That it's the only ethical thing to do. Hell, the only safe thing to do, given the dangers Jim and his colleagues face every day."

Stoddard rubbed his chin and shook his head. "Don't do anything irrevocable precipitously," he cautioned with urgent solemnity. "Take some time to think this through, to be certain that you understand the costs and implications of discrediting the paper." He studied the young man before him, frowning at the shadows under Blair's eyes and the slight tremble he could see in Sandburg's hands. "And don't take this as anything more than a simple observation, but you're emotionally distraught and not thinking clearly right now. You look like you haven't slept in a week. You're overwrought, and I believe, too ready to take full responsibility for the actions of others. I'm not at all convinced that you should lie to conceal the truth of Mr. Ellison's senses - it might even be a positive thing for him to come to grips with them in a public context, rather than feel he has to dissemble and prevaricate to hide what he is. I strongly suggest you get some sleep before you make any decisions about your next steps."

Blair shifted his gaze from Stoddard to the window. "You're right, it might be a good thing if Jim could be comfortable letting more people know about his gifts, but it isn't something he should ever be forced into revealing. And he really can't afford to let information about his vulnerabilities get into the wrong hands," he murmured wearily. Bowing his head, he nodded slowly, thoughtfully, as if he'd come to a decision. Though his downcast eyes and his wan expression gave Eli no confidence that his advice would be heeded, Sandburg allowed softly, "I'll think about what you've said before I do anything." Then, blowing out a long breath, Blair stood and wordlessly held out his hand.

Saddened by his understanding of what the poignant gesture no doubt meant, Stoddard stood and firmly clasped the younger man's hand with both of his own. "You're the finest student I've ever been privileged to teach, Blair, and one of the most brilliant I've had the pleasure to encounter," he observed with sincere intensity, his deep voice rough with sorrow. "You've also become a very good friend, a man I respect and care a good deal about. Please, son, don't throw all your accomplishments and dreams away."

Deeply moved by the care and concern, Blair looked up to hold Eli's gaze steadily for a long moment. "Thank you, Dr. Stoddard," he finally said, his tone warm and thick with emotion, "for… for your encouragement and example, and for having taught me that… that as a species man has to be able to live with his actions, has to be an ethical and principled being or all hope for society and community is lost." He paused briefly to clear his throat and steady his voice. "And, well, for helping me to understand that truth isn't immutable but perceptual, that there are always other avenues to explore, other questions to ask, other… other dreams to pursue. I won't ever forget the lessons you've taught me, and I'll always be grateful to you."

Eli nodded mutely as he squeezed Blair's hand between his own before letting go. "Good luck, son," he murmured when Sandburg turned away. "And, Blair?" he called just as Sandburg reached the office door, causing the grad student to pause and turn back. "Whatever you decide, whatever happens from here, remember I'm your friend and you can call on me if there is any way that I can be of help."

A small, sad smile played over Blair's lips. "You don't know how much your friendship means to me, especially right now," he replied, a catch in his voice. "Thanks, Eli, for always being there for me."

Stoddard watched until Sandburg disappeared into the hallway and then, having no real doubt about what Blair would choose to do, he sank sadly down onto his chair. "What a waste," he sighed as he brushed his hand over his damp eyes. "What a terrible waste."

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

The loft was shadowed and dim in the indirect afternoon light, and Naomi was sitting at the table, absently sipping on a cup of tea when Blair got home.

"Sweetie," she called gently, her eyes wide with sadness and regret. "Are you alright?"

He nodded but didn't meet her gaze. "I just have some thinking to do," he replied in a low voice as he moved past her into his bedroom, to unlock the small box and remove the copy of his dissertation. He stood a moment, staring at it, but the bedroom was too dark to really make out the print and he didn't want to turn on any lights. The brightness would be too harsh, would hurt. So he wandered back into the living room and sat down facing the balcony, the document in his hands.

As he leafed slowly through the pages, he became increasingly oblivious to the room around him and even forgot his mother was sitting behind him, watching him. Lost in thought, he reflected upon what the pages and the words upon them represented. In a very concrete sense, the dissertation was the embodiment of all the dreams he'd had for most of his life. It was the final achievement required to attain his doctorate, the degree he needed to continue his life's work as a professional anthropologist - both as a professor, teaching others and as the leader of future, funded expeditions to increase knowledge and understanding of human society. More, it was the tangible proof that he had found his sentinel - proof that sentinels actually still existed in the modern world and still watched over their tribes. For years, people had thought he was crazy to have searched so assiduously; peers and professors alike had mocked him for being unrealistic and even foolish to believe in the myths, to think they might actually have a place in current reality. His findings, however, clearly proved him right in his beliefs. The research was solid and the narrative was compelling. Writing it had been a labor of love as much as it was the scholarly and much cherished revelation that his dream wasn't a misguided fantasy but real flesh and blood. It was the best, even the most beautiful, thing he'd ever written. He'd labored long and hard to make it so because it was all about Jim.

All about Jim.

He sighed and his thoughts drifted as he reflected on their years together. They had been the best years of his life, bar none. The adventure had been incredible, but it wasn't the excitement that had meant the most or that had kept him engaged long after he'd had enough information to write ten dissertations. No, it hadn't been the roller coaster that had made him hang on, even after Jim seemed to weary of their 'deal'. He just hadn't ever wanted to let go of the friendship; hadn't been able to imagine moving on. The loft had become his home and Jim… well, Jim had become his rock in the storm of life. Somewhere along the line, helping Jim, supporting him, had become his purpose and reason for being. For months now, he'd been actively, even consciously, deluding himself into believing that Jim still needed him around, still needed his help. But that wasn't really true. Even before the fountain, Jim had been working more and more on his own and hadn't suffered any consequences of not having his so-called 'guide' by his side. And this morning, Jim had made it pretty clear that he just wanted Blair to move on. Couldn't blame him, really. Couldn't blame him at all, though it hurt deeply, and probably always would, that Jim seemed to still believe that he'd betrayed him deliberately; had always intended to betray him.

Swallowing against the persistent lump in his throat, blinking at the burn in his eyes, Blair turned more pages and thought about how the document would never have been written at all if Jim hadn't revived him at the fountain. Revived him? Hell, had gone into the netherworld of death and had hauled him back to life. How did anyone ever repay a gift like that? Blair shook his head unconsciously as he bit his lip. He'd've died for Jim if that had ever been required of him, to protect his friend, to keep him safe. But, instead, and however inadvertently, he'd not only failed to protect, he'd pretty much ruined Jim's life. Not to mention destroyed the most important thing in his own life - their friendship. He didn't give a damn about the money or the fame, didn't care about much of anything anymore except his hope that Simon would survive and that Jim… that Jim might be made whole again with his secret safely intact. As for their friendship, well, that was beyond hope, beyond fixing. That was over and the anguish of that reality constricted his heart. He'd had it all and then had let it all slip like sand through his fingers.

Continuing to page through the document, sometimes stroking the paper fondly as one would caress the cheek of a child, Blair's throat tightened with grief. It wasn't easy to let go of a dream, to destroy what had been so beautiful and had been held so dearly. He had hoped that, one day, he might have found a way to make some of the information public so that it might conceivably help other sentinels who were as lost and hurting, as confused and afraid as Jim had been when they'd first met. But that wasn't possible now. It wasn't about him, his hopes or dreams, or even about other sentinels anymore.

It was all and only about Jim.

What did it profit a man to gain all wealth and fame but to lose his soul?

What did giving up a career matter if it was to repay and restore a life? Any life, let alone the one he held most precious in the world?

What did sacrificing his own credibility and reputation matter if, in doing so, he could safeguard Jim's well-being and ensure his friend's future security by keeping his vulnerabilities secret?

What did giving up the life he'd loved matter in the final equation, if it meant that Jim's life would be what Jim needed his life to be?

No greater love, than that a man sacrifice his life for his friend.

Such sacrifice would be worth all the cost, all the losses, if he could just make things right for Jim.

Sacrifice.

Ritual sacrifice.

Solemnly, peacefully, without regret, surrendering something of value, something pure and unblemished, something blameless and innocent and beautiful.

Like a lifelong dream.

Like this magical document in his hands.

Like his life as Jim's friend and partner and roommate.

Tears blurred his eyes, though he wouldn't let them fall. Tears of relief that he could do what needed to be done regardless of the cost to himself. Tears of understanding that it meant that it was all, irrevocably over. Tears of grief, for what was lost.

And tears of love, love that made it all worth it, because Jim was worth any sacrifice.

Blinking away the burn, Blair blew out a long breath. He'd done as Eli had asked with such urgent and caring poignancy. He'd thought about it, and he knew what he had to do.

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

Sandburg got into his car and covered his face with his hands. He'd almost lost it a couple of times during the press conference, but he'd gotten through it and it was over. Done. Sighing, ignoring the reporters that swarmed around the Volvo like flies on a decaying carcass, he brushed exhausted tears from his eyes and took a couple of deep, steadying breaths before daring to drive. Switching on the ignition, he was glad that he and Naomi had decided that she'd take a taxi directly from the university to stay with a friend in town - she'd said that he and Jim might need some space to work things out that night, but he was simply relieved to not have to talk or deal with her grief and regret about all that had transpired. Slowly but steadily, to give the aggressive newshounds time to move away from the car, he backed out of the parking space and then headed toward the hospital. Simon should be getting out of surgery soon.

If he was still alive.

The thought that Simon might be dead or might still die put everything into crystal clear perspective and distracted him from any reflections about what he'd just done and all he'd freely given up.

Swallowing hard, Blair hoped with all his heart that Simon was still and would remain alive, to grow strong again and to live a long and satisfying, healthy life.

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

When he looked up as the doctor finished speaking and spotted Jim, Sandburg stiffened briefly, not sure he was ready to talk to Ellison. But Jim needed to hear the good news, and he relaxed somewhat with the gratitude that there was good news to share.

But after he'd told Jim that both Megan and Simon were going to be okay, he didn't know what else to say. The likelihood was that Jim didn't know about the press conference yet and Blair didn't want to talk about it. In truth, he expected Jim to simply walk away, to leave him behind again, because he knew Jim didn't want to be around him. But Jim didn't go anywhere, just stood there, so he grasped for something they could talk safely about. "So, uh, I heard you guys probably got Zeller," he observed, though he couldn't quite make eye contact and it was a strain to concentrate on what Jim said about Barclay. Jim stopped talking, and they fell into another uncomfortable silence.

"I saw the press conference."

The heavy words dropped into the silence between them like stones into a still pool, and sent ripples of uncertainty through Blair's body as he looked up in surprise and then quickly away. "Oh, yeah? You saw it," he managed to say before his throat tightened. He couldn't speak about it, not yet, not in any way that was even remotely coherent, so he shrugged, bowed his head and nodded tightly. But silence was intolerable. Casting another quick look up at his friend, Blair saw sorrow and regret in Jim's eyes and he couldn't stand it. No way did he want Jim assuming any responsibility or feeling bad about what had been necessary and only just. None of it had been any of Jim's fault.

"It was only a book," he offered hollowly with a small shrug, trying to make light of what he'd done.

"It was your life," Jim rasped in return, evidently not willing to minimize Blair's act.

Unable to deny the unequivocal statement outright, acknowledging the simple truth that it had been his life even if it wasn't anymore, Blair murmured, "Yeah, it was." But he sure in hell didn't want Ellison worried about what would become of him now. Once again, he tried to distance Jim from the implications, the inevitable outcomes of his actions that afternoon, as well as make it seem like it was all okay that he'd never be able to work with Jim again - that it was only reasonable to know his ride was over. He even forced what he hoped resembled a smile as he replied as blithely as he could, "But you were right. I mean, I don't know what I was expecting to do with it… and, uh, where did I get off, following you around for the past three years pretending I was a cop, right?"

"This self-deprecation doesn't suit you, you know?" Ellison replied awkwardly, unable to let it go as if what Blair had done for him that afternoon wasn't something… incredible, a gift of immense proportion beyond anything he could have possibly imagined or ever adequately thank. But he had to try. "You might have been just an observer, but you're the best cop I ever met," he said, his voice low and hoarse. "And you're the best partner I could have ever asked for. You've been a great friend and pulled me through some pretty weird stuff."

Astonished by the rough sincerity in Jim's voice as much as by the words of appreciation and friendship, Blair felt his mouth go dry as hope bloomed his chest. Maybe… maybe the friendship that he'd treasured above all else in his life and had feared irretrievably lost, could still be maintained. Oh, not the way it had been, obviously, because that life was definitely over, but that it could still exist at all was more than he'd dared hope for. Relief flooded his eyes and he had to pinch the bridge of his nose to contain the rush of emotion. It was so good to know that Jim didn't still despise him; more, much more than simply good. Gratitude for not having lost it all, for knowing that Jim still wanted some friendship to remain between them, welled in his soul, and he was afraid he might lose the fragile control he'd been holding over his emotions since the disastrous events had all begun. Scarcely able to speak as he lifted his wide eyes to Jim, his throat so tight and dry that he could barely swallow, he said tremulously, "Thanks."

When Jim gave him a small smile and asked if he was ready to get back to work, Blair bit back on the impulse to blurt out that he couldn't go back, didn't belong there anymore - that there could no longer be a place at Ellison's side for him. It was impossible. Didn't Jim realize that there was no way to explain why he would put up with a fraud in his home, a liar who'd used him, even supposing he wanted Blair to stay, which was in no way assured? There was certainly no hope of ever working with Jim again - liars and frauds didn't fit well within the closed fraternity of cops. The innocence and comfort of uncomplicated friendship between them was also lost - they couldn't very well hang around together anymore, and the more fragile but still real belief Blair had fondly held, that they'd learned to trust one another, no matter what, was gone for good.

But maybe… once more could be okay, couldn't it? Wouldn't do any harm? Just for today? He could do what he loved and be the partner he'd been for more than three years, stand by Jim and watch his back one last time. Unable to resist, he took a shaky breath, and nodded tightly. Still unable to trust his voice to handle more than brief, monosyllabic responses, he muttered, "Yeah, sure," and then followed Jim as he'd always followed since that first day a lifetime ago. On the way to the station, he stiffened his spine and held his head high, determined to live the rest of this day as he'd lived all those carefree days that had gone before… before his dissertation had blown his world apart.

Grateful for the gift of it all.

Happier than he'd ever been before he'd found Jim, or would likely ever be again.

Once more.

Just for today.

A few more unexpected and unlooked for treasured hours with his best friend and his sentinel - the man who embodied his most dearly held dreams and who had become the centre of his life.

And then, later, back home, they'd talk, maybe, about how they could stay in touch… while he packed.

Before he left the loft.

Before he… before he detached with love and… and moved on.

Finis

Comments, criticism, suggestions? Please e-mail Arianna.

Back to Arianna's page.