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.

Ship To Shore

by Arianna and Imbrillig

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Note: This story has grown out of several stimuli. First, it is a response to the SentinelAngst October, 2004 challenge to write something that draws upon the work of another author. With her permission, I've chosen to work with one of Imbrillig's provocative storylines (appropriate, I think, as this was her challenge, lol), so segments of this story are her work, not mine, and we have consulted extensively as this new story has developed. Second, there was a recent discussion on the list in which it was asserted that Blair was never anything more than a conman who abused Jim's trust for his own ends, while others suggested that the theme of betrayal worked both ways in that Jim had betrayed their friendship fairly profoundly with his doubts and failure to learn anything about trust in their years together. And, finally, I got a note of feedback from a reader who said she longed to read a story in which Blair comes to the cold realization that his life has done nothing but go downhill since he met Jim, his Sentinel. In my past stories, I've generally worked diligently to give a balanced view, to take neither Blair's nor Jim's part in terms of one being all right and the other being all wrong, and I've tried to do the same here, but this one will definitely be slanted into Blair's camp as the wronged party, at least in the beginning. I'm giving the muse free rein and, as I start this tale, I have no idea exactly how it will end... but I personally hate unhappy endings! ;)

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"Enough!" Sandburg snapped, humiliation pushing his despair into quick rage as he wrestled free of Ellison's grip and gave his erstwhile partner a furious shove away. Straightening, he raked his hair back from his flushed face, and his eyes sparked with blistering anger as he panted for breath. "Enough," he rasped again, his jaw tight and his posture rigid. "I meant it. I'm not going to cut my hair. And, face it, I'm never going to be a cop. That's an impossible dream; liars and frauds don't make good cops," he grated bitterly. "Just... just back off and give me some space, here, okay?"

Jim gaped at him, pale with shock as he shook his head at the fierce, and very unexpected, anger. Around them, laughter and merriment froze into awkward, painful silence. Blair blew out a breath and looked at the men and women who were staring at him with sorrow haunting their eyes. "I'm sorry," he muttered, appalled at his outburst as he struggled for control and lifted a helpless hand. "I... I never wanted it to end like this."

"Chief, it doesn't have to end at all," Ellison cajoled, feeling off-balance and too aware of the sudden sense of hollow anxiety twisting in his gut. "If you'd just..."

"Just what?" Sandburg cut in sharply. "Be more like you? Stop being me? It's over, Jim. We're over. Done. It's what you said you wanted just a few days ago." Shaking his head, he said more softly, "I'm finished here. We all know that. I have no credibility. Hell, I don't even know who I am anymore." His voice was strained, nearly breaking as he added, "But I do know that I cannot keep doing the 'I don't trust you' dance."

Turning away from Ellison, he went on more gently to the rest of them, "It's not that I don't appreciate the offer and all that it means. And it's not that I haven't loved working with all of you or don't respect what you do. A year ago, hell, two weeks ago, if you'd've offered me a badge, I might well have grabbed it and never let go. But, it's not possible now. You guys might give me another chance, but the rest of the department would despise me. And the DA's office wouldn't ever trust me." Sorrowfully, he muttered, "Probably wouldn't have worked in the long run anyway." Giving himself a slight shake, he straightened his shoulders and said quickly, his voice nearly catching, "So... thank you for trying to throw me a lifeline, but I've got to find my own path now. I, uh, I've got to be going. I... I wish you all only the very best, always."

"Blair, sweetie, what will you do?" Naomi called into the silence, having finally found her voice. Part of her had rejoiced when he'd fought back and refused to become a cop, just because they all wanted him to be just like them, but part of her was afraid and utterly sick at heart. She had never seen her son so angry or so fierce.

Nor had she ever seen such terrible pain in the depths of his eyes.

He bowed his head and swallowed hard as he lifted his hands as if to fend her off or ask for mercy. He wasn't prepared for this - wasn't ready to tell them, or pretend it was what he wanted. He couldn't have what he'd wanted, not anymore. "Don't, Naomi," he implored hoarsely. "Just let me be. I'll be... everything will work out fine."

And then he was pushing past all of them, desperate to get away before he lost what little control he had left. Eschewing the elevator because he didn't want to risk having to stand and wait for it, he hit the stairs running.

Simon looked around at his people, all of whom looked devastated, and then lifted his gaze to Ellison's pale visage. This sure hadn't gone down the way they'd hoped and planned. "What are you waiting for? You let him go now, you may never get him back," Banks counseled darkly. "Go after him - work it out."

Feeling as if he were locked in a bad dream, Jim nodded tightly and limped quickly to the elevator, grateful that it arrived immediately and giving him some hope of catching Blair before Sandburg left the underground parking lot. But, as he impatiently watched the overhead floor indicators flash, he wondered what he could say or do to work things out, as Simon had so pithily directed. What other options did they have, short of him admitting his sensory capabilities publicly? Why the hell wouldn't Sandburg at least give this a chance?

Luck was with him, and he emerged from the elevator just as Sandburg came out of the stairwell. Seeing Ellison, he pulled up short, the shocked, hopeless expression in his eyes very like a deer caught in the headlights. There was confusion and despair, and wide-eyed startlement that Jim had come after him.

"Chief, we need to talk," the older man urged.

"Now you want to talk?" Blair exclaimed as he looked around the narrow hall, his posture tightening as if he only wanted to escape.

"Look, let's just go home," Jim suggested carefully, waving toward the heavy fire door to the parking garage. Wordlessly, caught with no civil options, Sandburg nodded numbly and led the way out to his Volvo.

"What about your mother?" the detective asked, as he limped behind Sandburg. "Doesn't she need a ride?"

"No, she decided to stay with a friend of hers," Blair told him tonelessly. "She moved out a few days ago, just after you were shot."

Jim frowned at that, wishing he'd known Sandburg had been left alone with his thoughts and shattered dreams. The kid hadn't come to see him in the hospital, and he hadn't answered the phone when Jim called - didn't return any of the messages. Blair had only called that morning, tersely indicating that he'd pick Jim up when he was discharged at 11:00, after he'd stopped by the PD to drop off his observer pass. It was how they'd all known when to find him there with their offer of a badge.

They got silently into the old car, Jim moving stiffly as he maneuvered his sore leg inside the low vehicle. Once he was settled, Sandburg started the ignition and steered out and up to the street. Ellison didn't need to be a Sentinel to feel the tension that crackled in the air between them. Worried, he watched the passing streets as he struggled to find the right words to fix a situation that had gone very bad.

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

But the situation went from bad to worse when they got to the loft and Ellison saw that Sandburg's stuff had been removed from the common living area, and there were suitcases by the door.

"You're leaving?" he rasped in surprise, turning a look of disbelief on his friend. "Where are you going?"

"Well, I can't very well stay," Blair stated flatly. "There's nothing for me here in Cascade. My adviser, Eli Stoddard, pulled some strings and called in some big favors to get me accepted at a university back east. I'm starting over on a doctoral program there and maybe this time, I'll actually finish."

"What do you mean there's nothing here?" Ellison snapped, suddenly feeling adrift and abandoned, and hating the treacherous emotions. "Your home is here. Your friends. A job if you want it."

Blair's lips thinned as he shook his head, and he looked as if he were struggling to control his own emotions as he waved Jim toward the living room. "I can see you're not going to make this easy," he muttered. "You'd better sit down and get the pressure off your leg."

"Easy? Why the hell should I make it easy for you to cut and run?" Jim demanded hotly as he hobbled to the chair and sank into it.

"'Cut and run'?" Blair echoed, his voice raising an octave. "Oh, that's rich coming from you," he snarled, stung by the hard words, his throat tight. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't you the one who told me less than a week ago that it was time I moved on?"

"Yeah, well, I was angry and..." Jim grated, flushing in embarrassment but unwilling to admit the fear that had been driving him - fear of being seen as a freak. "And that was before..."

But his voice caught when his mind tripped over the terrible image of Blair sacrificing himself on national television.

"Before I trashed myself to protect my source and his secrets," Sandburg sighed as he flopped down on the sofa. "But that's exactly why I can't stay, for so very many reasons," he added as he scrubbed his aching forehead.

"I wish you hadn't done that," Jim sighed as he ran a trembling hand over his hair. "I never wanted that."

Blair gave him a long look but only shrugged and looked away.

"What's that? A shrug? Chief, c'mon, talk to me here. Tell me what's going on in that head of yours," Jim asked, feeling off balance and unsure. It was like talking to a stranger, not the man who'd been his partner and best friend for four years.

"What do you want me to say, Jim?" Blair asked, his voice brittle with control. Looking away, pale with tension, he grated, "God, Jim, didn't it ever occur to you to wonder why your name was in that 'dissertation'? Wonder why the whole damn thing was apparently about you and only you? I guess I should have made sure you were more savvy about academia, about what constituted an anthropological study. That document wasn't a dissertation! Did you really think that I was that bad a scholar? I know you think I was that bad of a friend. But what Sid got hold of was written for you and only you. I used your name because you spazzed on me when you read the intro back when I was trying to make even your copy of the diss conform to subject protection guidelines. So I wrote this other document that I never intended for anyone else to ever see. It was supposed to tell you where I thought we were, what we had learned about the whole Sentinel project, and where we went right and where we went wrong. For example, I've never been able to really talk to you about what happened with Alex."

When Ellison unconsciously flinched and turned his face away, Sandburg exclaimed, "See, you just looked away, and pulled away. You were supposed to be able to read what you couldn't hear." Blair sighed and pushed his hair back as he said wearily, "But, when it all exploded, you thought I'd conned you - all this time, and you thought I was only using you. And what did you want me to do, besides just disappear from your life? You wanted all the problems to go away and you figured it was up to me to fix things for you. Well, fine, I fixed them."

"I never wanted you to destroy yourself to do it," Ellison countered miserably. "You know that, don't you?"

"I haven't destroyed myself," Sandburg replied doggedly. "I've still got my Masters and I've got another chance at a PhD program at a good school. I'll be fine."

"But you denied your dissertation, destroyed your life's work," Ellison protested, confused and feeling physically ill with the magnitude of what Blair had given to protect him, especially after the dismal way he'd reacted. What did Blair mean that he had another chance?

"You're my life's work," Sandburg murmured, pain and pride warring in his voice. "Helping you to understand and use your talents, to achieve your incredible potential was far more important and meaningful than simply writing it down. Learning about you and with you has given me knowledge I'll always have, whether I get a PhD or not. You were my dream, man. Amazing and wonderful and I got to live it all fully. Best of all, I know that you'll go on doing good work, necessary work, and that I have helped you do it as well as you can... but I've got nothing more to give you, nothing more to teach you. A teacher doesn't hold on forever, but lets go when the student has progressed beyond need of him."

"All very noble, Chief, but frankly, what university that's worth a damn would take you on now?" Jim countered, regretting his bluntness when Sandburg winced, but kept going, needing to make his point. "I may not know much about academia as you so succinctly pointed out, but I know enough that they won't readily accept or trust a man who admitted to violating their most fondly flaunted ethical principles. You annihilated yourself, and you damned well know it! That's why we got you the job offer, Sandburg. And don't think it didn't take a lot of string-pulling to get a so-called fraud accepted into the Academy - or that it'll be all that easy to be partnered with a man half the force won't trust. But we did it for you and if you refuse this offer now, you won't be able to come crawling back here when you find out how they treat frauds in universities."

Blair flushed and swallowed hard, his eyes narrowing dangerously as he glared at Ellison. "'Won't trust', Jim? 'Half the force'?" Blair echoed angrily. He didn't need Jim lecturing him about the fallout of what he'd done, and he sure didn't need the doom and gloom prediction of inevitable failure. "Does that half include you? Because from where I sit, it sure does seem to."

"Trust you? You think it's about me trusting you? It's not that I don't trust you; it's that you don't trust me!" Ellison stormed back. "Half the time I don't even know what you're doing. I didn't know you'd written that document for me or that it had been written at all! And I sure in hell had no idea you were planning to leave town. How am I supposed to trust you when I don't know what you're going to do next?"

"The whole point of 'trust' is to have faith and believe in someone even when the facts would dictate otherwise," Blair spat back. But then he shook his head and held up his hands in a gesture of peace, desperately not wanting to fight. "I know trust is a major issue for you, Jim, despite the four years we've been together and the fact I have always done my best by you. But not everyone is as inherently suspicious and wary as you are. As incredible as it might seem to you," he seethed, "some of my friends and colleagues still trust me despite what they saw on national television, because they know me and their trust in my integrity is absolute." Blair pressed his lips together before he blurted out what he really felt. God, of all the people in his life, why was it the one who mattered the most who seemed incapable of trusting him, believing in him? They'd gone through some rocky times, but he had always hoped that Jim would one day finally find it possible to trust him without question. But any hope of that ever happening had died with Ellison's reaction to the dissertation fiasco.

Jim looked away as he tried to dampen his own anger. Yelling at each other wouldn't fix anything. "You could at least give the offer some thought - you could try being a cop and not just give up and walk away," he ventured, trying to keep the imploring note from his voice and not quite succeeding.

Blair blinked, caught off-guard by the genuine vulnerability in Jim's voice. He looked away and shook his head. This was getting them nowhere and there was no way he could stay, but he really wished Jim would understand why becoming a cop wasn't the solution - would, in fact, only lead to more problems. "Don't you realize that if I accept the badge, I would have to be a cop?" he sighed, having thought about being a cop for more than the past year but unable to see a way around the inherent problem with the role in terms of the support Jim needed from him. And, in the past week, he'd finally put that dream away, too. He wasn't ever going to be Jim's official partner. "I would be under a microscope and have to be better than the other rookies. I wouldn't be able to play fast and loose with the system, Jim. Especially now, I don't have the reputation to be cutting corners."

"The only people you have to impress are me and Simon, Chief, and you don't have to prove anything to us," Jim asserted as he turned his intense gaze back to Blair. There was trepidation in his eyes, but also, still, the ghost of hope.

"Jim, please, think about it, man," Blair implored. "What happens if I actually become a cop? I couldn't stop a zone from the backside of a house when you were sneaking in the front door, or if we were chasing perps in opposite directions! Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that why I'd be going to the Academy - so I could learn to do things the cop way and finally be the 'right' kind of backup for you? Not some tagalong at your back, but a fellow officer helping to capture the bad guys? I wouldn't be your guide on the streets. Half the time, we'd be separated, and that means I wouldn't be nearby to help you with your senses. You'd have to keep the senses dialed down when we're on a hot pursuit unless I was with you. We'd need to do some tests so I could see what your tolerances are when you're on your own, but you don't want to be a lab rat anymore. What's the point of me being your partner, Jim, if I can't be the kind of partner you really need? Face it, if I became a cop, it could get you killed."

"Chief, you were the right kind of backup." Ellison was serious now. If he didn't say just the right thing he knew that Sandburg would be out the door for good.

"Dammit. Listen to me! Don't you see?" Blair exclaimed in exasperation, his hands flying. "I couldn't accept a badge and then just slip back into observer mode, to be behind you, with you, watching your back. I'd be a badge-carrying detective with a lot of baggage, expected to toe the line and follow procedure. You said yourself that half the force would be watching and waiting for me to screw up. You and Simon wouldn't be able to do much for me when IA kept calling me on the carpet whenever I did anything not by the book! There's no block on the officer performance appraisal for being 'Jim Ellison's guide and tagalong'."

Vivid blue eyes locked onto blue. Anger and frustration that no solution seemed good enough to satisfy Sandburg began to overwhelm Ellison's fear of losing his best friend. Hell, it wasn't the 'guide' he wanted to keep! It was the partner he'd come to trust and depend upon. The friend he'd come to need.

"Oh, so this is all about looking good, Sandburg?" Jim snapped coldly. "More of the 'impress your peers' stuff? Nothing to do with friendship, huh?" But he knew as soon as he said it that he had struck a nerve and, given what the kid had just done for him less than a week ago, Ellison belatedly realized his remarks were more hurtful than he'd intended. Before he could say anything else, Sandburg was on his feet and storming toward the door.

"This is a waste of time. I have to go," Blair muttered, fighting to hold onto his control, to remain rational and coherent, to maintain some shred of dignity when all he wanted to do was smash something into pieces.

"You keep saying that, but that's not true," Jim objected, alarmed. Time was running out and he was screwing up, not fixing things.

Anger blazed again in Blair's eyes as he whirled, and then paced in agitation around the living room. "Why would I stay, Jim? I mean, aside from the fact that to give credence to my lies about the dissertation and the betrayal of my students, colleagues and advisers at Rainer I can't continue to associate with you, or we risk the truth coming out - why the hell would I stay where I'm not really wanted? Damn it, how many times do you think you have to kick me out before I get the message that I'm expendable? Why would I want to stay when it's all too clear that it's only until the next time you decide our friendship is worthless?"

"Look, that's not fair -"

"Not fair?" Sandburg interrupted hotly. For days, he'd had nothing much to do besides go over all that had gone wrong, and to feel the tearing pain of the realization that their friendship was a sham and maybe always had been. Unable to keep it all inside any longer, he ranted, "Not fair? Give me a break! You decided I betrayed you when I told you that I didn't, but my word wasn't good enough. And when you knew that the leak wasn't my fault, you still told me in no uncertain terms that you wanted me gone. You offer me a badge out of what, guilt? 'Cause you have to know damned well that there is no way I could ever be a cop, not now. I sure couldn't be your partner without a lot of people asking very pointed questions as to why you'd still put up with me, or why Simon would ever trust me enough to keep me around. And, you know what? After the way you've treated me for months now, let alone over the damned paper, I don't want to stay here. I don't need a fair weather friend, man - one that is only my friend on his terms and at his convenience. That's way too much like being used. Which is pretty much the way it is, isn't it? You used me for the past four years to get a handle on your senses, and now that you don't much need me anymore, our deal is off, and our friendship is revealed for the farce it was. You never, ever, intended to let me publish my diss about you, did you? Even if I'd found a way to protect your identity, you would have been afraid someone would figure it out - 'cause it's really pretty obvious when you get right down to it. Who else would my 'subject' have been? God," Blair sighed, pushing his hands through his hair, "I never thought it would ever end like this. I never thought you would betray me the way you have. I never thought you could ever believe I'd betray you so profoundly. I sure never thought my dreams, my life, could get this screwed up! I might have trashed my local credibility, big guy, but you were the one who trashed our friendship."

His voice caught as he looked at Jim - who was gaping at him and was as white with strain as if the words had been body-blows. Moisture glimmered in Blair's eyes as he choked out, "And the friendship was all that really mattered, man! To me, anyway. I never wanted to be rich and famous - I just wanted to do worthwhile, meaningful work. I thought that's what we were about, but I guess you never really saw me in the equation of what we did together. It was always, only, about you, the Sentinel. I can't... I can't keep doing this, being yo-yoed back and forth depending upon your mood and goodwill. Friends don't treat friends the way you treat me. They just don't. Guess I've never been much more than a neohippie witchdoctor punk to you."

Distraught, his whole body trembling with anger and grief and despair, he turned away, his arms rigidly crossed and his head bowed as he struggled to get himself back under control. He hadn't ever intended to say all that, but couldn't regret that it was said. It was how he felt. Completely, utterly used and betrayed. And he felt a fool for ever believing that Jim had considered him a friend, had ever really wanted him around. He'd protected the secret for years and had never betrayed Ellison, regardless of how Jim saw the world. Ellison had hated the thesis chapter because he didn't understand the language being used and, regardless, he wasn't prepared to admit that fear drove him. Jim had chosen to see Alex as a betrayal when all she'd been was a test subject, someone Blair hoped to maybe help and definitely use to offset the emphasis on Jim in his paper, to protect Jim's secret. It had been an academic exercise - not a case of lusting after someone who had murdered his best friend in cold blood and protecting her at the cost of anyone else's safety. Blair shivered as he remembered those hateful days in the jungle in Mexico. They'd never discussed, not one word, what had happened there any more than they'd ever discussed what happened at the fountain. Jim just did his famous repression act and behaved as if none of it had ever happened. And as for the dissertation - sure, maybe he had some culpability for having used Jim's name in the draft written for Jim's eyes alone, but it would have been taken out in the final, formal, sanitized version. But Jim hadn't wanted to hear that - hadn't wanted to discuss what they might do to fix the mess.

Had just told him to get out.

He'd been mugged, shot, beaten up countless times, drugged, kidnapped and nearly killed backing Jim up over the years. God, he'd died because of his friendship with Jim. But none of that had hurt as badly as knowing Jim neither trusted him nor wanted him around. He'd worked double-duty covering two full-time jobs, one at Rainier and the other downtown; but he'd never been as tired as he was after he'd given the Press Conference and known it was all over - not just the dissertation and his life in Cascade, but the adventure he'd been living, the friendship he'd cherished and the only real home he'd ever known. He'd given everything he had and he just didn't have anything left, not for a man who inherently despised him and believed him to be unworthy of trust, despite all evidence to the contrary. And, in the end, maybe he'd only proved that Jim was right about him after all - he had proven himself capable of great betrayal, perhaps not of Jim but of nearly everyone else who mattered in his life. He'd betrayed those who had believed in him and had trusted him, to protect the man who didn't. Feeling naked and empty, he recalled how blissfully elated he'd been when he'd first found Jim... man, who could have guessed that day was only the beginning of a long slide into hell?

"What do you want from me?" Jim rasped then, his voice tight and scathing with his own emotion - guilt and defensiveness, anger and a very real fear that the breach between them was too great to mend. "You want me to go public? Restore your reputation? Beg you to stay? What?"

"I don't want anything from you, Jim," Sandburg sighed. "At least, I don't want anything that seems possible for you to give." Turning, he looked down at the man who had been the center of his existence for the past four years, and his eyes were dark with pain. "I don't want you to go public. We've kept your senses secret for very good reasons, not least of which is to safeguard your life, let alone your privacy. My reputation is my problem, not yours, and I'll deal with the fallout to my Press Conference. I'll also deal with good old Sid for having published my work against my wishes, and Rainier for terminating my employment without just cause. None of that is your problem, and frankly, it's best if you just stay out of it. You're not an academic and you don't have the first clue about how that world works - you never did. My work was the least of your interests and concerns, and that was fine. You didn't need to understand my world; I just needed to understand yours. Beg? Yeah, like the great Jim Ellison would beg anyone for anything, let alone me to stay, when we both know you'll be relieved to see the last of me."

"What if I need help with my senses?" Jim challenged, playing a card he dearly hoped Sandburg wouldn't refuse. The kid had been his lifeline for years and Ellison knew how seriously Blair took his responsibility to help him.

"Talk to Simon or Megan," Blair retorted, surprising him. However, Sandburg's voice tempered into a more reasonable tone as he continued, "But that won't likely be necessary. You haven't zoned for months and you handle your senses really well. There's nothing more I can teach you or that you need from me. I'm redundant now."

"So, just like everyone else I ever let get close, you're just going to abandon me and hope for the best, is that it?" Jim growled, letting frustration and anger overcome the cold fear in his belly. The kid was really going to go and there was no way to stop him.

"Not everyone in your life abandoned you, despite the way you carry that belief around like a cross," Blair sniped back. "Some just died, like your men in Peru and Danny Choi and Incacha and Jack Pendergast - and Lila, who loved you so much she died saving your life. Some you rejected, like your father and brother. As for your mother, who knows, but I doubt she was abandoning her children so much as she was leaving her husband. Virginia was a self-centered bitch who used you from the get-go. When you and Carolyn split, it was mutual and you stayed friends. As for me, well, staying would do you more harm than good, and would destroy me. It's not abandonment, Jim, when there's no other choice and you told me to get lost."

"I don't want you to leave," Ellison finally stated flat out, bleak desperation resonating in his voice. "I... you're wrong about so many things. I know I've made some mistakes but I never meant to just use you and throw you away. You're my partner. My friend."

"You've got a really strange way of treating your friends, Jim," Blair sighed wearily. "I'd sure hate to be your enemy." The conversation was taking them nowhere except deeper into acrimony, and he just wanted it to be over. Swallowing against the massive lump of grief in his throat, Sandburg said hollowly, "It's too late for anything now. The proverbial bridges have well and truly burned. I've, uh, I've got to go. It's a long drive to Georgetown U and I have to report to my adviser there next week, with a new dissertation topic." He paused and bit his lip, seeming hesitant, and then said quietly, "I'm not sorry to have spent four years with you, and I guess I'll always love you like the brother I never had, but I just can't do this anymore, Jim. I, uh, hope you'll have a great life - I really do. Stay safe, okay? Don't take stupid chances - and please accept the next partner Simon assigns to you. You know, like it or not, you can't be alone out there anymore. I... I hope you'll trust whoever it is more than you've ever been able to trust me."

And with that, he turned and went to the door to haul on his jacket. When he bent to pick up his bags, Jim called out, "Sandburg, for God's sake! Don't...."

"Let me go, Jim," he whispered brokenly, tears close to the surface. "For both our sakes, before we destroy one another and whatever is left of our friendship, just let me go."

Ellison surged to his feet as he yelled, "If you leave now, don't ever come back!"

Blair froze at the door and gave him a long, haunted look. Then, murmuring, "Okay, if that's the way you want it," he opened the door. "I guess it's what I expected," he choked as he left, closing it firmly behind him.

"Sandburg!" Jim shouted savagely, as he lurched heavily across the room, but his bad leg gave out and he crashed to the floor with a grunt of searing pain. Panting, sick with his helplessness and grief, ashamed of his weakness and the things he'd said, he lay as still as a stone and listened to Sandburg clomp down the stairs and out to his car. The trunk opened and closed and then the car door. He heard the engine rev and the swish of the wheels on the damp pavement until the sound was swallowed up by other, more powerful noises when the Volvo got too far away to hear any longer. His throat was thick and his eyes burned as he slumped against the loveseat and lowered his face into his hands.

"Why? What have I done?" he gasped hoarsely, unable to stop the tear that trickled down his cheek. "What the hell have I done?"

And he truly didn't know.

Oh, sure, he'd blown up and been out of line, but Sandburg understood him as no one else ever had - Blair had to know he hadn't meant what he'd said in the heat of anger. So, okay, he really didn't want to announce his senses to the world - was that such a crime? The kid had just said he agreed that they should be kept secret. Not trust Sandburg? Shit. What was that about? He'd never trusted anyone more - he might grouse, but he always did what Blair wanted him to do when it came to managing his senses. He'd given the younger man a home, hadn't he? And maybe they hadn't talked about some stuff that they should have, like the fountain and Alex, but talking wouldn't make it any different, wouldn't undo what had been done - she would have still killed Blair. He would have still lusted after her, his instincts at war with his head and his heart. Hell, Sandburg had seemed to understand it all far better than he ever would; at least, from what he'd said on the beach and at the temple, Jim had thought that he understood.

Why had Blair decided now that he had to leave? They could have found a way to make the job work. Was it really only because he couldn't finish his PhD locally? Was all the rest of it just a fancy excuse to rationalize his decision to go? How could he just leave like that? He'd said he loved the work, loved the rollercoaster, loved him like a brother. How could he imagine Jim no longer needed him, or felt he was 'expendable'?

"Damn it," he grated as he threw his cane in fury against the wall. "Well, fine, then, go!" he snarled, hurting badly. "I don't need you. Don't need anybody. You're right - I'll be fine."

But the ache of loss spread in his chest until he found it hard to breathe past the sob that lodged in his throat and that he wouldn't acknowledge. Breathing shallowly, blinking back tears he would not allow to fall, he conceded silently, in the deepest depths of his soul, that he loved the kid and he'd've rather given up his right arm than watch Sandburg leave. And he knew, in his heart, that Blair had been hurting, too, badly - and hadn't left to be malicious or selfish, but because he was drowning here, drowning in sorrow and loss and grief and anger.

Maybe... maybe it was just as well.

Life as a cop would have been dangerous.

But, damn, he was going to miss Sandburg - more than he suspected he could even begin to imagine. It was hard to believe that what they'd shared was over and done. That all he had now was memories, less substantial than dust in the wind and about as satisfying. Blair had been very wrong about some things - Jim certainly felt no relief at his leaving. To the contrary, Ellison felt utterly bereft, as if all the joy had been leeched from the world and it would forevermore be gray.

Suddenly bone-weary, unable to face his thoughts or deal with his emotions, Jim dragged himself to his feet and gasped at the agony flaring from his wounded leg. Fumbling in his pocket for the small vial of pain medication, he took two capsules, more than he would normally, and turned to the staircase. But he didn't have the energy or inclination to haul himself upstairs so he sagged down onto the sofa. Blair's scent was strong there, the cushions still warm from his body. Curling on his side, Ellison was more than willing to succumb to the numbness of sleep and he gratefully let the darkness claim him.

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

Blair pulled over at a fresh food market just before the highway, to stock up on water, fruit and granola bars for the long trip ahead. After dumping the bags onto the passenger seat for easy access, he pulled out his cell phone and called his mother to tell her he was headed to Georgetown U in Washington DC, to finish his doctorate there.

"Oh, but that's wonderful!" she exclaimed, relieved to learn that some of his dreams might yet come true. "I know it must be hard to leave Cascade and Jim after all these years, but you'll get your PhD and everything will be fine! I'm so glad, sweetie."

Blair shook his head but didn't bother to correct her. At least someone was happy with the way things had turned out. "Thanks, Mom," he replied with as much warmth as he could muster, unaware that he sounded so broken and sad that tears grew in her eyes as she listened to him trying to be brave for her. "See, like I said, things work out the way they should. Uh, look, I've got to go. I'll call you as soon as I get settled and give you my new address and phone number, okay? You... you take care of yourself."

As soon as she'd said her own farewell, he disconnected and shoved the phone back into his jacket pocket. With grim resolution, he hit the state highway and headed toward the Interstate. But he found it was far easier to leave Cascade behind geographically, than it was mentally and emotionally. Literally sick with despair, he had to pull over at one point to retch into the grass, until there was nothing left but dry heaves and he was gasping for breath. He wanted so very much to turn around and go back; hated the memory of the stricken look on Jim's face when the older man had realized that he was really going to leave. Why did it have to be so damned hard?

Leaning against the car, he reached in to grab a bottle of water and rinsed out his mouth, spitting the dregs onto the gravel. Closing his eyes, he focused on getting his breathing settled and then risked a small swallow. When that stayed down, he capped the bottle and returned to the driver's side, once again pulling out onto the highway.

His thoughts kept dragging him back over the last week. After he'd gotten Jim settled in the hospital, after Ellison had been shot by Zeller, Blair had returned to Rainier to pack up his office. Someone must have alerted Eli - probably the departmental secretary though he'd never know for sure, not that it mattered. All he knew was that he'd looked up to find his mentor standing in the doorway looking ineffably sad.

"Ah, Eli, I'm... I'm really sorry," he'd stammered.

But the elderly professor had waved off his attempt at apology as he came into the office and settled into a chair. "You were right to protect your source, though I regret the cost," Stoddard said firmly, leaving no doubt as to what he believed to be the truth.

Blair knew he'd gaped at that, and had broken eye contact, not sure what to say and not wanting to lie to the man's face. He owed Eli too much to engage in pretense. Silence was the only defense he could muster, and avoidance, so he kept packing a box with papers and books.

"I've spoken to the Chancellor and pointed out that that paper had never been submitted as your dissertation," Eli went on into the silence, his voice strained and tired. "She had no right to do the things she did and certainly no right to fire you - but I'm afraid she'll never forgive you, either."

Nodding, Blair had gone on industriously packing his notebooks and texts.

"What will do you now? Where will you go?" Stoddard asked into the uncomfortable silence.

And those questions brought Sandburg's nervous action to a halt. Shaking his head, he looked up at his old friend and replied softly, hopelessly, "I don't know."

"Well, I thought that might be the case," Eli replied briskly. "So I've made a few calls, called in some favors. You can start at Georgetown next week, if you want. Saul Bronson has agreed to be your advisor there, if you decide you want to pursue your PhD."

Gaping at Eli, Blair's lips parted in amazement. "You're kidding? I mean - after what I did?" he gasped.

"What did you do but stop a media feeding frenzy and act with all due integrity and principle to safeguard your source's privacy?" Stoddard demanded hotly. "Surely you don't think that anyone who knows you and your work gave that Press Conference any credence? Nonsense. You've too good a brain to waste, young man. You're a genius, Blair, and I refuse to let this mess cost us your future contributions to the field of Anthropology. So, shall I call Saul and tell him you're on your way?"

Startled into a laugh, Blair couldn't help but smile at the man who had taught him so very much. "Thanks, Eli. For believing in me," he said with candid sincerity. "I... I can't stay in Cascade, at least not right now. And I've pretty much destroyed any hope of continuing as Jim's partner at the PD. So, yes, tell Saul that I'll be there with a new diss topic - and thank him for giving me this chance."

Eli shrugged. "Oh, come on, you must know he jumped at the prospect of luring you to Georgetown," the older man snorted. "He tried hard enough when you finished your Masters - your work on his field expedition over in Africa a few years ago impressed him greatly." Standing, Eli held out his hand, and when Blair took it, he added, "I'm proud of you, and if you ever need me or want to come back here, you only have to call. Edwards can't blackball you forever, not when she's the one who was in the wrong. If I were you, I'd sue her ass off. Go, get your PhD. But don't write us off entirely. Who knows what the future might yet hold; I'd like you back on my team some day."

Blair had pulled Stoddard into a fierce hug, too moved for words. In more than a week full of disasters and heartbreak, Eli's abiding faith in him had been the one bright spot and it had given him the strength to get through the rest.

When he'd cleared out his office, he'd gone home to pack up his stuff there. It had been hard to put his life into boxes and to remove all trace of his presence from the loft. He didn't want to go, but he couldn't see that he had any choice. Sure, Jim had warmed up after the press conference and had seemed to finally forgive him, but the pattern that had developed in the past almost year was distressing. Ever since Ellison's trip to Clayton Falls, Blair had been aware that Jim was pulling back, leaving him behind more and more. The older man was hungry for his independence and keenly needed to know that he could manage his senses on his own, though Jim had never said so in so many words. But Blair had seen it and had even understood it. He just hadn't wanted it to end. The rest, whether their fight over the first chapter or Alex, or even the dissertation, had all been no more than pretty transparent excuses for Jim to tell him, again and again, that it was time to move on. He just hadn't wanted to hear it. It hurt to think his friend was tired of him and didn't want him around anymore. And Blair had truly loved their work together. It had made a real difference for the good.

And he truly loved Jim.

But the universe trundled on and, eventually, the time had come when Sandburg had to acknowledge that Ellison didn't want or value their friendship and partnership as much as he did. Jim was intrinsically a loner; he'd put up with having his personal and professional space invaded for as long as he was prepared to tolerate.

And, deep down, Blair really did feel betrayed and more than a little used. He was glad he was able to help Jim, but he'd never bargained for the way Ellison had treated him time and again - like a pariah - unwanted, unrespected, unneeded... even despised. Well, thanks to Eli, at least he had a place to go and another chance at life as an academic. Blair sighed, knowing he should be more grateful for that opportunity. But he had stopped wanting the academic dream long before he'd held the Press Conference. Still, it was a far sight better than nothing and it gave him a starting point for a new life path.

Sandburg drove until well after dark and, when he was growing too tired to continue further safely, he pulled over into a rest stop, crawled into the back seat and pulled a blanket over his body. His thoughts and ragged emotions finally took mercy upon him and let him sleep.

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

Blair woke stiff and cold, and he shivered as he sat up and then left the car to conduct his morning ablutions in the public restroom. Feeling slightly more human, but wishing profoundly that the coffee machine had been working, he jogged back to the Volvo and cranked up the heater before uncapping some water and eating an apple. There wasn't much traffic on the highway that early, just the semis rumbling past, trying to make time before the lanes filled up with cars. In minutes, he was back on the road, driving into the rising sun.

He caught himself wondering how Jim was doing and if he should have hung around to make sure his friend could manage with his injured leg. Guilt tugged at him, telling him he should turn around, but reason barked sharply, ordering him to keep going. There was nothing back in Cascade, certainly not a friend he could rely upon no matter what. If he'd left sooner, when he'd first sensed that Jim was growing weary of their arrangement, maybe things wouldn't have gotten so bad. Now, going back would solve nothing.

But it was hard to keep heading east when everything and everyone he loved most in the world was behind him. To steel himself to what was necessary, to keep his anger fueled, he conjured up the memories of the hurts and betrayals, both small and large. Jim, up in Clayton Falls, being clear he didn't want Sandburg around because Blair was always in his face and wanting to do tests and more tests. Still in Clayton Falls, thinking he was going to die and being incredibly relieved to find out there was no deadly disease, just a minor poisoning - but Jim hadn't said a word then or since about being glad he was alright.

Okay, that was petty, he reasoned. It wasn't like Ellison had hoped he'd died. But it had still hurt.

Then, the recollection of Jim yelling at him in the PD garage on the night of the strike, about his dissertation chapter - the one Jim knew he wasn't supposed to read but had anyway - being a betrayal of trust and friendship flared and flamed his fading anger. Reminding him of what he owed Jim, up to and including letting him stay in Jim's apartment, as if it were on sufferance, and he hadn't both paid rent and worked free of charge backing Jim up on the job, long after he'd gathered all the information anyone could possibly need for ten dissertations, let alone one!

Being summarily kicked out of his home, after having been greeted the night before with a pistol in his face.

The blowup over Alex and Jim telling him to find another subject, again because Ellison considered the issue a betrayal of trust and couldn't get past it - completely uninterested in hearing why Blair had been so excited and careful about revealing the fact he'd found another sentinel. It had all been to protect Jim, not that Ellison ever seemed to realize that or care.

Dying in despair, believing Jim despised him.

Being miraculously revived had been incredible - absolutely incredible - but Jim didn't want to talk about the awesome mystery and import of what had happened, just said he wasn't ready to take that trip. Well, fine.

Then Jim had left him in the hospital to go after Alex, all the way to Mexico, with no word - just gone.

Another gun pointed at him when Jim found him and Megan in the hotel room, as if Jim hadn't heard their voices, smelled their scent, picked up on the familiar heartbeats - a major disconnect between them, as if a wall had grown up so thick and solid neither of them could get past it.

Jim's unbelievable behaviors in Mexico, from making out with Alex on the beach, yelling a warning to her that brought deadly fire on their position, taking off after her, even leaving him and Megan alone in the jungle, careless of the threat of the drug smugglers or that fact that she was a stone-cold killer.

In the Temple, Jim leaving him still tied up to go to Alex, to hold and kiss her and his distant, sometimes even cold manner ever since.

The list went on and on. They'd never talked about any of it. For months, they'd lived in the same apartment and sometimes still worked together, but were increasingly alienated as more and more Jim was working with Joel or Megan or even Harry, the master thief.

And the last couple of weeks had been truly awful. Maybe he should have told Jim right away about what his mother had done, but... but he'd known that Ellison would just blow up. So he'd tried, desperately, to contain the damage, to no avail. God, Jim had believed that he had betrayed Ellison and then lied about it. Had been so angry he couldn't look at Blair or speak to him. And even when Jim had found out the truth of what had happened, it didn't matter. Jim had still been very clear about wanting Blair out of his life.

That was the singular moment when Blair had known there was no going back, no recovery that would restore what they'd had for so long in the beginning. He had to fix things for Jim and then he had to move on. He was just damned lucky he had somewhere to move on to.

Sandburg sighed and squinted a little as he continued driving into the new dawn, utterly convinced that only a fool would have lingered after all of that. Huffing a sigh as he raked his hair back from his face, he figured he was fool enough for having wanted, so very badly, to stay.

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

The shrill ringing of the phone roused Ellison to his throbbing headache and the persistent pain in his leg. Bleary, not quite awake, he wished Blair would take the call, but when the phone rang again, he pushed himself off the couch. He felt hungover, muddled, as he limped heavily across the room and grabbed the phone off the wall.

"Hello," he muttered, his attention more on the refrigerator and his search for a bottle of cold water.

"Jim?" Simon asked, concern in his voice at his friend's odd tone. "You okay?"

"Huh? Yeah, just woke up," Ellison replied as he wedged the phone between his ear and shoulder, and twisted off the cap. "You?" he asked before taking a long swallow.

"Me? I'm fine, nearly good as new," Banks lied as he rubbed his aching chest. "Look, I just wondered if you'd worked things out with Sandburg."

"Sandburg?" Jim echoed, but the name caused all the memories to crash back into place. He looked wildly around the living room, hoping it had only been a bad dream. But the changes, small nuances though they might be, told him it had all been real. The candles and afghan were gone from their places, the masks no longer on the wall. "We... yeah, I guess you could say we worked it out," he rasped as he rubbed a hand over his face and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"What does that mean?" Simon probed, worried by Ellison's empty, almost lost, tone of voice.

"He's moving east to attend Georgetown University, to finish his PhD there," Jim reported factually, his tone now contained and flat. "Left yesterday afternoon."

"Is he coming back?" Banks asked, dumbfounded. He didn't know what he'd expected, but this wasn't it.

"I doubt it," Jim replied stonily, the ache of loss again invading his chest. "He said there was nothing left here."

There was a momentary silence as Simon absorbed the news, and then he sighed heavily. "Well, I'm sorry to see him go, but he was right yesterday. He'd've had a hard road in the PD. Maybe this is for the best."

For the best? Jim leaned his forehead against the cool wall and closed his eyes. "Yeah, maybe," he managed to agree hoarsely, though everything in him wanted to protest.

"You going to be okay?" Banks asked then, wary as always of Ellison's sentinel abilities and the toll they exacted.

Jim nodded as he swallowed. "I'll be fine. Sandburg said... he said that he didn't think I needed - that I'm handling everything okay. He's right. I've been pretty much working without him for months now."

"Yeah, I'd noticed," Simon rumbled, his voice sounding weary. "Okay, well, take a few days to give your leg a chance to heal. Guess we'll both be back to work next week, at least on desk duty. You need anything, you give me a call."

"Thanks, Simon, but I'll be fine," Jim repeated dully and then hung up the phone. Lumbering to the nearest chair, he sat down heavily before burying his face in his trembling hands. God, he hoped he'd be fine, but he hadn't felt so uncertain about anything since he'd been a kid and awakened to find his mother had left them. Snorting, resenting all the implications of that thought, he straightened and rubbed a hand over his head to massage the back of his neck. He wasn't a child anymore and Sandburg sure in hell wasn't his mother. Okay, so the senses still unnerved him a little - they were so damned unpredictable - but Blair had taught him a lot about control and he'd been applying the lessons as well as he knew how. For several months now, he'd been confident about flying more and more on his own because he'd always known Sandburg was there, in the background, available if he was needed. That was all changed now. Taking a calming breath, Jim closed his eyes and focused on his internal dials, resolutely turning them all to a setting for what passed for normal perception. If he held them there, he really would be fine. He could do this on his own - had to; he had no choice and his pride wouldn't allow him to admit that he was scared.

But it wasn't all about his senses. Looking around, listening, he was struck by how empty and lifeless the loft felt. How lonely.

Well, he thought bitterly as he pushed himself to his feet, he'd just have to get used to that, too. For now, he needed a shower and a strong cup of coffee, in that order, and then he'd figure out what to do with all the free time he had until he went back to work. Limping down the hall to the bathroom, he very carefully did not look into the vacant spare room under the stairs.

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

For the next couple days, Jim ate, slept, did some reading - or tried, watched some television - or tried, but his mind kept wandering and he was having a lot of trouble concentrating on anything but the silence that surrounded him. A master at stoically accepting what couldn't be changed, he told himself he'd get used to it. It wasn't like they'd made some kind of life pact to always live and work together. It had been inevitable from the start that Sandburg would move out. He'd only been there for convenience, right? It was easier to observe Ellison and to help him learn to control his senses, and cheaper than that rat-infested, firetrap he'd been living in before it blew up. So what if it had stretched on longer than either of them had ever imagined it would in the beginning? Blair was right. Jim didn't need constant babysitting anymore. Sure didn't need a roommate underfoot all the time, with weird stuff in the fridge and cupboards, perpetually noisy, always talking and making a mess he never got around to cleaning up. So what if the ending had been as unexpected and abrupt as the beginning had been?

But he kept remembering things that pulled at his heart. His fear of not getting to Sandburg in time when Lash had taken him. Sandburg running for his life after having suffered a head injury and been left alone in the forest with two deliverance-type whackos wandering around - and then Blair being shot and in pain in the cold, filthy mine. The kid screaming in terror when he'd been airlifted out and there not being a damned thing Jim could do to make it any easier. Sandburg saying on their return from Peru that it wasn't just about his research but about friendship. Standing up for him over the Junos and, well, so many times up to and including the Press Conference. Simple times together - here in the loft, on short holidays, going to the movies, talking, laughing, just being companionable. Blair wet, cold and dead on the grass in front of the fountain. The too frequent times when he'd seen hurt darken those huge eyes, dimming their sparkle - hurt he'd caused by his careless words and too quick temper.

When he thought about Sandburg leaving, he remembered the pounding heart and the trembling hands, the glimmer of tears in eyes shadowed with such terrible pain.

The whispered voice raggedly begging him to let Sandburg go, for both their sakes.

How many times had he told Sandburg he hated his senses and wished they'd disappear? How many times had he told the kid he wanted space or outright told him to get out? How many different ways did he signal that he wanted it all to be over?

How long would it be before getting his wish stopped hurting so bad that it was hard to breathe?

How long was the rest of his life? And was this it? All there was or would ever be? A difficult, dangerous job and an empty home? A tenuous reconciliation with his father and brother? And friendships that were based on work relationships more than anything else? Where was the fun, the laughter? Where was the joy?

And he wondered, often, where Blair was, how far he'd traveled and if he was all right.

But then, time and time again, he forced the feelings away impatiently and ignored the ache in his heart. Sometimes life stank and that's just the way it was. Whining and moaning about it never made anything any better. You just sucked it up, kept going, and kept doing your best.

And he tried once more to focus on whatever the hell was on the television.

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

Not long after pulling out of Cheyenne, Blair left the mountains behind. He found himself glancing into the rearview mirror as they receded, and he felt a tearing ache as the last peak disappeared. The rolling plains of Nebraska bore no resemblance to the windswept, mountainous coast of Washington. He gripped the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles were white and his jaw was clamped tight with the physical effort it took to keep going.

Hour after hour, the landscape slipped past, increasingly flat and foreign. He passed through Omaha and crossed the wide Missouri into Iowa at Council Bluffs and kept driving though the day was growing old. By the time he reached Des Moines, he had to stop. The roar of the wheels on the pavement filled his ears and he was trembling with fatigue. Pulling into a nondescript motel, he got a room and then stopped in at the diner across the road to eat. But he felt tired and vaguely nauseated. Though nothing much appealed to him, he forced down half a bowl of soup and some salad. Returning to his room, he took a hot shower and climbed into bed, where he lay staring at the dark ceiling and listening to the distant lonely rumble of semis on the highway.

He felt as if someone had died, as if he'd lost a vital part of who and what he was. It was frightening to feel so alone and empty, to be swamped with such grief and despair. He knew he had to get past it, had to find some peace, some comfort - hell, some hope and possibility of joy. He couldn't keep living like some kind of shell, a robot on autopilot. Closing his eyes, he forced himself into a deep breathing exercise that would eventually lead him to sleep. Willfully, he focused on nothing, allowing thoughts and feelings to float through his mind and away as he tensed and relaxed muscle groups in his body and limbs until he finally drifted into the darkness.

The next day, he crossed the mighty Mississippi and the moment held tremendous significance for him. It was, literally, a watershed; the physical demarcation between the west and the east. He shuddered with misery as the Volvo swept down off the bridge and a sob built in his throat. Suddenly, he knew he had to get off the highway because he was in no shape to drive. Taking the next exit, he pulled into a small shopping plaza full of factory outlets, and parked at the far end of the lot, away from all the other cars. He'd never given way to tears, not in all the time that his life was crumbling around him. Not when Simon and Megan had been shot, or when Jim had told him it was over and had walked out on him. He hadn't lost it after the Press Conference, or even when he'd been packing, first in his office and then at home. He'd kept himself under rigid control, moving from one task to another. He'd been as stoic as he could manage given that stoic wasn't his thing, but he hadn't dared to let go because there was no one to catch him, to hold him and he didn't want anyone's pity.

But, he couldn't keep holding it in any longer.

The sob built until it filled his chest and tears burned in his eyes. He couldn't swallow past the lump in his throat and his lip began to tremble. Burying his face in his hands, leaning forward onto the support of the steering wheel, he gave up the battle for control and wept with the painful, gasping intensity of the utterly heartbroken. He mourned his losses, the death of his dreams, the ending of his friendship with Jim, and the wrenching move from all that he'd come to call home. His face and hands were awash with tears, and he was gasping for breath, sniffling against the stuffiness before the storm of emotion passed.

"Some genius you are," he muttered brokenly as he swept the salty wetness from his cheeks and fumbled in his jacket for tissues. "How could you have been such a fool? How could you let yourself get so caught into someone else's life that your own got lost? Idiot. What did you think? That the rollercoaster would go on forever? That you'd always live under the stairs, like some kind of gnome or troll?"

But his throat thickened again and more tears leaked from his eyes. "But I was so happy. So happy. I love him, dammit. Somehow, he became the most important person in my life. And I don't know how to get past that - how to let go," he panted, his muffled words torn and broken by sobs. "It hurts so much, that he... he thought so little of me. God, how could he ever think I'd betray him? What did I do to make him believe I could be so... so corrupt and loathsome?" Raking his hair back from his face, he stared through the windshield up into the sky, as if the answers might be written on the clouds that scudded overhead. "I did my best, you know? I gave him everything I had to give. Why does he always think I would deliberately hurt him?" Sniffing, swiping at his eyes, he shook his head and then rubbed his temples, trying to ease the throbbing. "All I wanted was to help him. Be his friend and partner. But I guess I wasn't good enough." Sighing, he blew his nose and sat back, feeling physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually exhausted. Swallowing, he sniffed again and shook his head numbly. "Guess it wasn't all me. He's got serious trust issues and that temper...."

Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes. Bad as he felt, he had a limited tolerance for self-pity and he knew intellectually, however raw his emotions were, that he couldn't judge himself by Jim's standards and behaviors. He'd screwed up, lots of times, and was far from perfect. But he had done his best. And he had made a difference. Jim was better off for having known him. If Jim didn't trust him, that didn't mean he wasn't trustworthy. Whatever Ellison might have thought at the time or would think in the future, Blair knew he'd acted with integrity and affection. And he'd left Jim whole. He could do no more.

He took a deep breath and then another before opening his eyes and straightening to really look around to see where he was. Too wrung out to drive any further that day, he spotted a motel and drove across to check in. Once he was in the room, he tossed the keys onto the bedside table and crashed, falling immediately into a deep sleep.

And when he woke, he began to think about what he would say to Saul in four days' time. He needed to work up a new dissertation topic and he needed it in a hurry. There was the 'thin blue line' idea; he sure had enough information to write about the closed society of law enforcement. But that tugged him back into his old life and that was over and done. He really, really needed to move on. For the next day and a half, he pondered various ideas as he drove further and further east, around Chicago and then southeast toward Washington, DC.

He realized, belatedly, that the emotional breakdown had cleared his mind in an odd way. Instead of being trapped in endless circles of questions with no answers, regrets, recriminations and sorrows, he was able to take a more detached, almost clinical, view of what had happened. He looked at the dynamics with a wider lens, not just from his or Jim's perspectives, but from how it all would have appeared to everyone else - his students and colleagues, the cops on the beat, perfect strangers watching the news. None of them would ever know the truth, only what was recorded and reported in sound bites and pithy quotes. And that led him to think about how perception of the world and reality was dependent upon such limited - more often than not slanted - information.

By the time he driving through Maryland, he had his new topic - and, with a curl of the old excitement in his gut, he knew it was one that he'd have fun with and that it could be something meaningful.

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

When Jim returned to work, he thought he was prepared for the reactions of his closest colleagues to the fact that Sandburg had left town, apparently for good. The kid had been popular and they'd all miss his teasing and laughter, the brightness that he had brought in with him everyday, like some folks brought donuts. They would also miss his quirky way of looking at things that had helped them all solve cases. And Jim knew, as well, that the others in MCU didn't buy the Press Conference. They all now knew about his unusual senses, even if they didn't have all the details. He wondered if they'd hold it against him, that Sandburg had sacrificed himself to keep the secret secure, and he figured they probably would. So, he was braced for their animosity, having promised himself he'd endure it in silence.

But he was surprised and disconcerted as he moved from the garage through the corridors and the elevator by how many of the patrolmen and detectives from other branches, how many of the clerks and technicians and specialists quietly, almost furtively, murmured their regrets that Sandburg had had 'to take the hit' but they understood and would do all they could to help him if he needed it. Some came right out and said they'd been smart to keep the information from the general public. Wouldn't do to have the perps know they had an advantage. Jim blinked and nodded noncommittally, his expression carefully neutral, but he was astonished. All these people had figured it out; but they were all handling the information as if it were a national secret. As one after another patted him companionably and sympathetically on the shoulder, he matched them with crime scenes and discussions about evidence. They must have all noticed something was up, right from the beginning, but they'd held their peace and just let him and Blair do their thing. The media hype had simply explained what they'd already observed but hadn't understood.

It was the same thing in MCU. Everyone was sorry Sandburg was gone, and thought it a damned shame. But it was what partners did, Henri mused somberly while the others nodded. Partners, the kind that counted most, didn't duck but took the hit, and that's what Blair had done for Jim. They respected and understood the reasons why it had been necessary, and admired the kid's guts and integrity for having the courage to do what he'd done. And they all offered whatever support or backup Jim needed, whenever he needed it. All he had to do was tell them how they could help.

By the end of the day, it was patently obvious that the whole PD was engaged in a conspiracy of silence around an open secret. But they would protect him and keep the knowledge inside the department. He was their Sentinel and they'd do what they could to help him do his job.

Jim didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Blair - hell, all of them - had figured he'd have no credibility in the general law enforcement community, but everyone seemed to all think he'd more than paid his dues. There would have been no resentment or backlash. If only they'd risked talking to other people about what they were doing. If only Jim had been more comfortable sharing his difference with his colleagues. It could have been so simple. As he drove home, he felt a terrible guilt.

Blair had given up everything and was having to start over with a reputation of being a fraud and a liar.

As for him, his life was just peachy-keen.

Was that what Sandburg had done? Taken the hit for him? Or had the kid just gotten fed up with being treated like a useless appendage, a persona non-grata? Or had he just wanted to move on and rebuild the shambles of his life?

Regardless, Jim knew he'd gotten everything he'd wanted - his secret was safe, his life as a cop was secure, his home was his own. Hell, people even felt badly for him! And were far more supportive than he could remember colleagues ever being.

But he'd never been more unhappy in his life.

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

Sandburg had barely gotten settled in his new digs, a small apartment near the campus, when he saw a brief note in the newspaper, probably picked up on the wire from Cascade because he was now living in DC, that reported the "infamous Blair Sandburg, who publicly admitted his doctoral paper on mythical Sentinels was fraudulent, has left Washington to take up residence in the nation's Capitol, where he is now attending Georgetown University. Sources at that institution state that Mr. Sandburg showed too much promise not to be given a chance to start again. Captain Banks, of the Cascade Police Department said, 'Blair Sandburg is a good man. We wish him every success in his new location.' Officials at Rainier University refused to comment. Perhaps this time, the grad student who preferred shortcuts will do the work necessary to honorably earn his doctorate."

With a muttered grunt, Blair tossed the paper aside and hoped that would finally be an end to the past.

Turning to his laptop, he drafted a note to Jim and found himself reworking it several times to get the right tone. There had been so much anger and acrimony the day he'd left, and he didn't want that to be the last thing either of them remembered about their years together. In the end, he settled on a cheerful, if matter-of-fact note that simply ignored the rancor and reported he was settled and his new diss was already in process. With luck, maybe he'd finish in less than a year. After stating that he hoped all was well with Ellison, he gave Jim his new address and phone numbers, home, office and cell, and ended with greetings to the others in MCU. After that, he checked his messages assiduously and eagerly grabbed the phone every time it rang for a week before giving up hope that Jim would respond.

However, he did hear from Jack Kelso, who expressed regret for not having seen Blair before he'd left Cascade, but his main reason for calling was to catch Sandburg up on what was happening at Rainier.

"Your formal petition to have your dismissal and expulsion reviewed has been received," the former CIA Agent reported gleefully, "and it's the talk of the school."

"Oh, yeah? I thought these things were supposed to be confidential," Blair replied carefully. The petition was only the first, formal step and he was fairly certain he'd end up having to sue Rainier before the matter was settled.

"Normally, yes," Jack agreed. "But you're a celebrity, my son. A hero of sorts for your history of death and resurrection, the most popular 'prof' in the School, not to mention for repeatedly bearding the beast in her den, and for refusing to simply slink into the shadows just because she wanted you to disappear. Nobody here honestly believes that Press Conference, well, most don't, anyway. She went too far this time, and we're going to nail her."

"We?" Sandburg echoed, bemused by Jack's comments. Funny, he hadn't felt like much of a hero the day he'd packed up his office - an outcast maybe.

"Well, that's why I'm calling," Kelso replied, humor again in his voice. "You know the regs - a dissenting student under suspension or expulsion cannot be represented by another from his or her own faculty. Questions of bias and favoritism arise. So, Eli gave me a call when your petition was filed and asked if I'd represent your case before the Tribunal. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. Frankly, after Berkshire published that formal apology, it's pretty much a slam dunk that you'll be cleared of all wrong-doing."

A smile blazed across Blair's face as he whooped into the phone. "Jack, that's great! Thank you! Man, I wish I could be there to state my own case, but I really haven't got the bread for the airfare right now. Talk about being tapped out," he obfuscated, for it wasn't the issue of finances that kept him well away from Cascade. "Anyway, there's no one I'd trust more to do this for me."

"Well, let's get to it," Kelso replied warmly. "Tell me what happened from the beginning."

They talked for the next hour as Blair shared the details of what had happened with the paper, without ever getting into the legitimacy or fraudulence of the document itself. And then Jack wanted more details on any other confrontations Sandburg had had with the Chancellor - the Ventriss case, in particular, would prove most useful. The ex-CIA agent revealed that he wanted to do more than clear Sandburg's name - he wanted to use Blair's case as the springboard to rid Rainier of Edwards for good. As they wound up the call, Sandburg agreed to summarize everything he'd said and to send Jack a report by email, no later than the next afternoon.

"Thanks, again, Jack," Blair said fervently just before they ended the call. "You have no idea how much I appreciate this."

"No sweat, Blair," Kelso replied, suddenly sober. "You're a good friend and you got a raw deal any way you look at it. It's a pleasure to help make some of it right. And, hey, I'm on Eli's side - I'd like to see you back here someday."

After their call concluded, Sandburg sat back in relief. With his name now cleared publicly, if he could win his case against the Chancellor's precipitate actions, the academic world would also know he hadn't deliberately set out to commit fraud. Blair smiled to himself as he reflected on how his mother hadn't been willing to sit back and let the wheels of justice grind slowly if at all. Unable to resist trying to help him one more time, she had flown to New York City and stormed the Berkshire's bastions, relentless in her pursuit of the President. With years of experience in how to stage a protest, she'd had a Times Reporter in tow and she was no doubt frightening in her fiery, righteous determination to make things right for her son.

The President never had a chance.

By the time Naomi was finished with him, she had a check in hand for Blair. After calling her son on his cell and learning he'd already moved into a small apartment, she took note of the address but hadn't told him where she was or what she'd been up to. Instead, she'd taken the train straight to Washington and was standing on Blair's doorstep with the New York Times in her hand when he answered the doorbell early the next morning.

"I'm sorry," she said with a quaver and tears in her eyes. "I know this will never make up for the trouble I caused, but maybe it will be of some help here and now." And then she opened the paper to the headline of Berkshire's public apology to Blair Sandburg, and handed him the settlement that would more than cover all his debts and pay for a good deal more of his future life's expenses besides.

"Oh, Mom," he'd choked as he pulled her into a hug. "Thank you."

Sniffling as she clung to him, she whispered hoarsely, "I love you, baby. I never, ever, wanted to hurt you."

That had been three days ago, the day after he'd sent his email to Jim. At that thought, the smile faded and his eyes darkened with sorrow. All the money in the world, all the vindication of his actions, would never ease the raw hurt in his soul or alleviate the emptiness he felt whenever he thought of Ellison, his Sentinel and the man who'd been the best friend he'd ever had.

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

He got an email from Blair two weeks after the kid had left, giving him Sandburg's new address and phone number. The note said things were going fine and he'd begun on his new dissertation, and that he hoped Jim was well. Ellison stared at the words for a long time, wondering if he should pick up the phone and tell Blair that he could come back anytime with no worries about being accepted in the department. But then he read again the bit about how the new dissertation was going fine and Sandburg was settling in - and he thought maybe he should leave well enough alone. Blair was finding his own path, building his own life, creating new dreams. He didn't need to be dragged back into the past.

And, besides, why would he ever want to come back?

So he never responded to that note, or the next, or the one after that.

So what if he kept the bed under the stairs freshly made up with warm flannel sheets, or if he'd bought candles and incense to leave ready on the desk? Or if he'd covered the barren walls with framed pictures of the two of them together, most of the photos from fishing trips, capturing them both laughing and happy?

Didn't mean anything really.

Didn't mean he wished every damned day that Sandburg would come back home.

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

A week later, hunched over his laptop on the desk in his small living room, Blair was making good progress on his new dissertation. The overhead fan helped keep the heavy air of a DC summer moving and the open windows allowed in the fragrant breeze. He could hear the rustle of leaves outside and looked up briefly, enjoying the sensation of being in a kind of treehouse. His apartment was on the second floor, over a coffee shop on a narrow street lined with sycamores and magnolias in the Old Town, near the University. It was both peaceful and convenient, and if some might find it small, he preferred to think of the place as cozy. Still, it was a lot warmer than he'd grown accustomed to in Cascade, the sun brighter and hotter, the air stickier. Ruefully, he felt nostalgic for the sound of rain on the roof and windows.

The brill of the phone shattered the contemplative moment. "Hello," he replied, his attention divided between the call and the notes beside his computer.

"Is this Dr. Sandburg?" a girl's voice asked uncertainly.

"It's just Blair Sandburg," he replied with unconscious warmth to reassure the caller.

"Oh, well, yes, um, I... I read about you in the newspaper a few weeks ago and I need your help," she stammered and then blurted out her story as if afraid he might cut her off or hang up before she was finished. "My brother - he's just a kid but he's having trouble with his senses, I think. Everyone thinks he's crazy and making things up, but he's got skin rashes and loud noises or bright lights really hurt him. Sometimes smells make him feel sick and he can't eat hardly anything because things taste bad to him. I think... I think he might be a sentinel."

"Whoa, slow down," Blair soothed, though he could feel the old excitement of discovery. It might only be a prank in poor taste, but the voice sounded too young and worried not to be genuine. "What's your name?"

That was only the first of many such calls, some of them from other countries; from people who had senses they couldn't understand and that tormented them, parents worried for their children, spouses scared for loved ones, or friends and siblings who hoped the obscure story of an anthropologist, who had claimed to have found a Sentinel only to deny it and then been vindicated of wrong doing by the publisher that had revealed his work, was the answer to their prayers.

As more and more people sought him out for help, his reputation for understanding their heightened senses grew. He was able to write articles about his work with them, using the current experiences as a screen to also communicate what he'd learned while helping Jim. And he found he wasn't only working with nascent sentinels but also with those who became their guides, helping them to learn how to assist the sentinel. At first, he thought anyone could be a guide if they had the right knowledge, but he discovered that something more seemed to be required. Whether it was a quality of voice or touch, he had trouble discerning, but sentinels responded better to some people than others.

All of it continually made him wonder about how Jim was faring.

So, almost eight months after he'd left, he worked up his nerve to call his erstwhile partner and friend, to tell him about all the people who were making themselves known to Blair, and to share what he was learning from them.

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

When Jim heard Sandburg's voice, he felt stunned, disoriented. Somehow, he'd never expected the kid would call. But he drank in the warm tones, the cheeriness, believing it absolutely with no idea of how hard Blair was working to sound upbeat. Sandburg did most of the talking, as he always had, filling the silent spaces. When asked directly, Jim said brusquely that he was fine, just fine. No problems. Blair had been right in saying he could manage on his own. No, no zones. His tone grew truculent, though, with the lie, because he was zoning when he was tired. But Blair didn't know it was a lie and so he backed off, became impersonal again and then ended the call with warm wishes for everyone.

Jim hung up and leaned his brow against the wall. He hadn't said any of the things he'd thought about saying in the long hours of sleepless nights. Hadn't given any clue of how much he missed the kid and wished he'd come home.

And once again, his need made him angry and he pushed it away.

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

When Jim was distant, almost cold when Sandburg asked how he was doing and if he was having any trouble with his senses, Blair interpreted it as being an unfriendly, definitely unfriendly, signal. He backed off immediately, embarrassed to be imposing himself upon someone who clearly didn't want anything more to do with him. He kept it light and cheerful to hide the hurt and regret and, as quickly as he could, he terminated the call.

Looking at the phone, he thought of the emails he'd sent that had never received an answer and he sighed. He had to accept that whatever his secret hopes might have been for some sort of reconciliation some day, it wasn't ever going to happen. Well, he wouldn't intrude into Jim's life anymore... well, not with anything particularly personal. A card at Christmas, maybe, or Jim's birthday couldn't be offensive, or he hoped it couldn't.

Getting up to wander to the window and look out at the leafless branches and the stormy winter sky, he pondered the mystery of the universe. He'd spent a good part of his life looking for a sentinel and knew he was one of the very few people in modern society who still gave any credence to the myths. And he'd found Jim when Jim had needed help the most. When he'd been writing his paper in Cascade, knowing it would have to be kept secret, his only regret had been that there might be others, like Jim, who might have been helped if his work could have become widely known. And then the whole thing had blown up. It had cost him Ellison's friendship, something he still mourned as irreplaceable - but it had also resulted in others finding out about his work and reaching out to him for help.

Staring up at the sky, he remembered his words to his mother on the fateful day he'd decided to hold his Press Conference. Nothing in this universe happens randomly. It all has a purpose. Things will work out the way they should. And oddly, even perversely, things had worked out - in that his mother's ill-considered action and Sid's perfidy had made it possible for all these other people to get help from the one person who really understood what was happening to them.

"The mysterious," he murmured to whatever compassionate Sentience kept the universe functioning as it should. "There are no coincidences. It's all about synchronicity, however improvable that is in a scientific sense." He smiled ruefully, his eyes searching the sky, and then whispered sentinel soft, "I just wish... I wish it hadn't cost so much, you know? I wish..."

But he turned away, leaving the words unspoken, to bury himself again in his work. He had so much to be grateful for and was in awe of how it had seemed to turn out for the best, when it had appeared such a complete disaster less than a year ago; it seemed churlish to want still more.

To want, even ache, for reconciliation.

To want, sometimes with fearful desperation, to be able to go home.

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

The months wore on, and there were no more emails. No more calls. But, in the long, silent hours of the night, Jim continued to rehearse the things he might say if he ever happened to see Sandburg again, face to face. One day, he heard a song on the radio by a country singer named Gary Allan, and it took his breath away. It was as if someone had been reading his mind - and his heart - and it left him feeling naked.

I'm talking to the mirror, whispering your name
Just like you were here... you'd think I was insane.
I hold these conversations in the silence of my room,
Rehearsing all the things I'd say should I run into to you.
"How's it going?" might be what I'd say.
"You broke my heart, you know - looks like rain today."
But, God, I've missed you since you went away.
"You're looking well," or "Go to hell," might be what I'd say.
There's times I've been so angry I could put my fist right through wall;
And then there's times I've come so close to giving you a call.
I love you and I hate you, all at the same time...
And then I pray you'll come back to me before I lose my mind.
Ah, God, I've missed you, since you went away.
"You're looking well," or "Go to hell," might be what I'd say.

But he still didn't know what he'd say, if he ever got the chance to say anything at all.

The months blurred into a year, and Jim's moroseness came to be accepted as the kind of inconsolable grief any partner would feel when they lost that special one who was so close, had such an affinity as to seem a part of oneself. People were tolerant and kind, and continued to be as supportive as they could. He shared some general information about his senses as he worked crime scenes and either Joel or Megan, or occasionally even Simon, backed him up when he was doing his 'sentinel thing'.

But it wasn't the same. He didn't allow himself to really open up his senses, like he had when Blair had been with him, grounding him.

Nothing was the same.

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

More months passed and he successfully defended his dissertation. The subject caused quite a stir, and resulted in the University holding a mock trial in which they charged the media with professional misconduct and even criminal abuse of their power. The resulting proceedings and arguments got a lot of press coverage, to the amusement of some and the thoughtful reflection of others.

And it made Blair something of a celebrity. Before long, he was being invited to speak at conferences in several states, Canada and a few European venues. At the same time, his work with sentinels, combined with both his broad knowledge of anthropology and his acquired knowledge of police work and procedure, led to a second doctorate and a consulting role with several metropolitan police departments on the east coast.

Blair had acquired the wealth and fame he'd never sought. He had achieved a double PhD and a professorship at Georgetown, who felt lucky to have him. He was working with sentinels and their guides on nearly a daily basis on a research project funded by The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. As busy as he'd ever been, it seemed that all his dreams had come true.

All but one.

He sent a Christmas card and a birthday card, but never heard anything in return. He kept up with the gossip and general news on what was happening with the MCU crowd through Daryl Banks, who had started his freshman year at Georgetown the month before, and the occasional note from one or the other of the gang in MCU, who kept him posted on how Jim was doing.

He told himself, over and over again, to stop wishing for what was never going to happen.

When Eli and Jack called, urging him to consider coming back to Cascade, he respectfully declined. The last thing Jim had ever said to him was don't ever come back. It had been said in the heat of anger and hurt, and Blair had long hoped that the words would be retracted and their relationship restored to at least civil exchanges, but that hadn't happened and probably never would. Until those words were retracted, until Jim signaled that he would like Blair to come back to Cascade, Sandburg would remain in the east.

However, neither Eli nor Jack was prepared to give up that easily. It had been over a year since Jack had won Blair's case for him, including a standing opportunity for Sandburg to return to a full professorship once he'd obtained his doctorate. The two older men got together and conspired to hold a joint Political Science/Anthropology World Conference on Media: Truth or Dare. And Dr. Blair Sandburg was penciled in as the keynote speaker. When they called and ruthlessly implored him not to let them down, he had no real choice but to agree to attend. He owed both men too much to not support their work in turn.

So he wrote his speech and packed his bags, slipping in the folder of the information he had recently complied to send to Jim and Simon, figuring it would be faster to courier it to them locally just before he returned to DC. Whether Jim would talk to him or not, both he and Simon, at least, had to know what he was learning and postulating from his research.

An hour later, Blair was sitting in the bar at the airport, waiting for his flight, when his attention was caught by a Chris de Burgh song playing in the background. It had a tone of desperation and a pounding beat.

Ship to Shore, do you read me anymore?
This light is bad and fading....
Ship to Shore, answer my call,
Send me a signal, a beacon to bring me home.
I have been to see the world, tasted life at every turn,
And all the time your face came back to haunt me.
Day by day, the feeling grew; I know that I still care for you.
The further that I go, the more I know it.
I want to show it!

The words caught at Blair's heart and he lowered his head, listening hard, feeling as if he could have written them himself.

Ship to Shore, do you read me anymore?
The light is bad and fading....
Ship to Shore, answer my call!
Send me a signal, a beacon to bring me home.
Moving fast, all systems go, you and I had time to grow
Before there was a breakdown in transmission.
How I wish that we could turn the clock back to the days
When we were partners in the true sense of the meaning.

His throat tightened with the poignant sorrow in the singer's voice and he felt his chest grow tight.

Ship to Shore, do you read me anymore?
The light is bad, I'm drowning!
Ship to Shore, answer my call!
Send me a signal, a beacon to bring me home!

"Oh God," he gasped at the reference to drowning, and he lifted his hand to cover his mouth, the words conjuring too many painful memories. The singer was desperate now, needing to be heard, afraid of the continuing lack of any response. The beat pounded hard and the voices were pleading...

Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore!
I cannot believe my eyes, there has to be a sign of light!
Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore!
You are everything I've always wanted in my life!
Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore! Ship to Shore....

He felt a sudden shiver, cold despite the heat of early fall in Washington DC, the grief of what he'd lost surging so fiercely that he could barely breathe or swallow. How could he do this? How could he go back to Cascade when the one person who mattered most in his life didn't want him there and never wanted to see him again? How could he return to what had been home as if it didn't matter anymore? God, surely he wouldn't run into Jim. There'd be no reason for Ellison to attend the conference. If he stayed close to the University and didn't wander far from his hotel room, maybe, maybe, he could get through this.

It had been eighteen months. Why the hell did it still hurt so badly, as if the breach between them had only happened yesterday?

God, how he wished he was going back under different circumstances, eager to return because Jim wanted him back, wanted their friendship restored as much as he did. But even if they reconciled, there was no hope of reviving their old partnership. People had long memories and the cops in the Cascade PD would still despise him as a liar and a fraud who'd conned them all, however successful he'd been since.

No, he had to get in and get out as quietly and quickly as possible. Jim would never even know he was in town, and there'd be no more chance of further hurt and rejection.

But a treacherous spark in his soul longed to see Jim one more time.

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

Ellison sat in the very back of the auditorium, bracketed by Banks and Taggert as if they thought he might try to escape if he was left any possible route of retreat. On stage was a man that Jim had thought had ceased to exist - a curly haired whirlwind of activity and commentary, eyes flashing with great good humor and hands flying to illustrate points being made, playing the audience like a maestro as the events surrounding a media circus were illuminated and dissected. Blair Sandburg was in his element. Groans and chuckles and outright laughter were wrung from the audience of staid social scientists gathered to hear a treatise on Media: Fact finders or myth makers? Public perception, private reality.

Ellison breathed a sigh a relief, not unmixed with pique, that Sandburg had evidently fared so well during their separation. Certainly the lecturer on the stage was a far cry from the repressed, angry and anguished man who had left Jim's loft and life eighteen months ago. Jim didn't need to hear Blair's retelling of the Dissertation Mess - the 'diss-aster' as Blair had taken to calling it in a cynical, self-mocking tone of voice that didn't set well with the sentinel; he had lived it. But he found himself drawn into Blair's recounting of it, into Blair's analysis of the role that ratings and expectations and advertising revenues and plain greed of more than one stripe had played in the manufacturing of a modern urban legend out of a faction melding two disparate topics of research. Without ever bringing up whether or not Jim Ellison was a sentinel, Sandburg was leading the audience into seeing the entire affair as an exercise in the abuse of power... by members of the media, the publishing world and even academia. Ellison was watching the master obfuscator at work, setting things right without ever telling an outright lie, concealing the truth below layers of provable facts. As Blair wound down to a conclusion, Banks elbowed Jim in the side. "Hell of a tale, don't you think?"

Ellison nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak, and more sure than ever that he shouldn't even attempt to see his erstwhile guide. Obviously, he had nothing that Sandburg needed, no deal he could make to get Blair's help this time. Sandburg had no need of a dissertation subject. From what Jim had just heard and read earlier in the conference brochure, the kid had plenty of subjects. Of course, he could always appeal to Sandburg's sense of justice....

Taggert mused aloud, "Wonder why he didn't take this tack back when this all happened?"

Ellison winced; he knew why. Blair had laid it out for him just before he had left the loft and started the journey to Washington, DC. He could still hear the low, discouraged tone of Sandburg's voice when he'd explained that the document Naomi sent to Sid Graham had never been meant for anyone's eyes but his own, to help him better understand his own experience as a sentinel and their experiences together as they'd done their best to figure out how to use those senses. The paper had never been Blair's formal dissertation but the kid had gotten trapped into denying it to take the heat off Jim. Whenever he thought of their last furious and futile conversation, Jim felt his gut clench with anger and despair - and no little self-disgust for his lack of anything resembling empathy for what Sandburg had been enduring at the time. He'd been too damned caught up in his own anxieties, wants and needs to spare any emotional support to his best friend and partner.

Seeing Blair now, his vibrancy and composure, his very obvious success in having moved on, Jim felt bereft and defensive all over again. God knew he hadn't found the last eighteen months so easy. His senses had gotten so unpredictable that he normally kept them dialed back, so even at crime scenes he no longer gave them free rein. His world felt grey and joyless, tedious and so indescribably dull and empty of warmth. But he couldn't admit that to Sandburg, like some kind of penitent begging help. Left to his own devices, he would have walked out there and then, but he knew Simon wouldn't let him get away with that. Nor, in good conscience, could he regret that. First, last and always, he was a detective and he wanted, even needed, to do his best to justify his existence on this earth. But men were dying, murdered in cold blood and he knew - he knew - that he was missing something; some ephemeral clue that could keep others from suffering the same fate. And he also knew, like it or not, he needed help to figure out what that something was.

Sitting in the auditorium as thunderous applause rang out, Ellison remembered the sense of outrage, of betrayal he felt as he had interrupted and lashed out at the man telling him what he didn't want to hear. He found himself asking again just whose fault it was that everything had fallen apart. He hadn't done anything any different from the way he'd been throughout their association. It was Sandburg who'd called a halt, who'd refused to try to preserve their partnership. Who wouldn't even try the option of becoming a cop. Sure, the kid had been under pressure, but who hadn't been? Maybe it couldn't have been the same as it had been before the disastrous leaking of the private paper, but they could have found a way to make it work.

And now Sandburg was back, if only briefly, looking every inch the confident academic and brilliant genius that he was, as illuminating and enthusiastic as ever. The conference brochure said he was currently employed with the National Institutes of Health, working with people who had heightened sensory abilities and specializing in cases where social and cultural norms and mores impact on the repression or manifestation of enhanced senses - whatever that meant. Bottom line, Jim supposed, the kid had made vintage lemonade from lemons, and was living his dream of working with sentinels. Bleakly watching him, listening to him, Jim felt old and tired, weary and empty, and he just didn't know how he'd scrape up the energy to pretend he was doing just fine and didn't need anybody's help or concern.

Down at the podium, Dr. Blair Sandburg acknowledged the applause with a grin and a wave before leaving the stage. He had barely hit the bottom of the steps before he was mobbed, and the three policemen lost sight of his curly head as he was enthusiastically welcomed back by his colleagues.

Taggert said quietly, "Seems to me there are a lot of people who were just waiting for an excuse to bring him back into Rainier's academic fold."

Banks chuckled. "Excuse? Hell, the kid didn't need an excuse - that, gentlemen, was a triumphal return."

While they waited patiently in their seats near the back of the hall for the room to empty, Jim experimentally extended his hearing. For the first time in a long time, he did it easily, with a sense of... not control, exactly, because he had his hard-won control, but maybe confidence, even comfort, as he latched onto Sandburg's voice. The voice that had flattened in the last month of their partnership into little more than a monotone was back to the shifting, changing, ever enthusiastic tones of the researcher who had burst upon his scene and talked his way into his life.

"Aw, man, Jack, that's nice of you to ask, but I'm pretty happy in DC," he heard Blair saying with apparent joviality, but then Jim squinted at the slight strain he could pick up, though it probably wasn't noticeable to Kelso. There was something the kid wasn't saying; something that was making him uncomfortable. "I'm doing some really interesting work with a group of, well, I'm calling them proto-sentinels, that should really help out people having trouble with enhanced senses. I'm also working on identifying what it is that guides do - did you know I've got a dog working with a ten-year-old girl that has been able to keep her from falling into a fugue state? She was in a psychiatric ward when I started working with her. Now she's home with her family and -"

Jim lost the rest of it when he snorted disparagingly. Trust Sandburg to liken what he did to the impact of a dog in a child's life. Sure, there were similarities. Blair had a way of relaxing people, making them comfortable around him, and he was protective and affectionate, open and generous with his feelings, but, come on... a dog?

A high-pitched voice calling out to his former partner caught his attention and pulled him back into the scene playing out below.

"Sandy! Hey!" an attractive, curly-haired redhead called out as she pushed her way through the gathered admirers to give Sandburg a big hug. An expressive shrug moved through the energy-filled figure, as Blair disengaged himself from the limpet-like embrace and laughed a trifle awkwardly. He looped an arm around her shoulders, though, as he said with what Jim could tell was forced camaraderie, "Joce! Hey, when did you get back? Last I heard, you were in Tibet."

"A few weeks ago," she chirped smugly as she looked up at him. "Took me a while to make my way back - longer than you, that's for sure - but I'm back now!"

"That's great, Joce," Sandburg said, the warmth in his voice more natural. "I'm glad. I always thought you had a ton of potential." Then, as if remembering Kelso, he turned back to his friend to perform the introductions, "Jack, this is Jocelyn Warren. We were undergrads together. Joce, this is Jack Kelso, a prof in the Poly Sci faculty and a very good friend."

Jim couldn't help wondering how Sandburg would introduce him. Former friend? Ex-partner? Jerk of the Year? Has-been sentinel?

Banks felt the sudden tension in the man next to him. "Jim? Ellison? Don't you zone on me!"

"Oh for... I'm not zoning, I'm listening," Jim muttered with a grimace. Even after all this time, his colleagues still weren't comfortable with his abilities. 'No, to be honest,' he reflected, 'they aren't comfortable with the idea of being my guides. Only Blair had the nerve to dive head first into the uncharted waters of sentinel senses, as if he knew where the rocks were.' A memory from happier times flitted through his mind's eye - a mischievous grin and sparkling dark blue eyes as Sandburg responded sardonically to one of his rare compliments with, "Hey, man, anybody can walk on water if they know where the rocks are hidden." Sighing as he pinched the bridge of his nose, Jim knew that he missed his friend even more than he missed his guide. His guide....

Former guide.

"Simon, he's working with other people who have enhanced senses." Even Jim heard the bit of discouragement he couldn't quite keep out of his voice. With so many 'proto-sentinels' relying upon him, why would Sandburg consider staying in town to help only one? Ellison's lips thinned as he stiffened his spine. He'd managed fine for the last eighteen months; he'd just have to solve this case alone, too. Big deal.

"We knew that, Jim. Daryl's been keeping us in the loop. Hell, didn't he say anything about it to you in your Christmas card?" Simon rumbled, as he studied Ellison with a thoughtful frown.

"No. He mostly asked about my senses and you guys...." Jim didn't add that he hadn't answered the card any more than he'd answered any of the cards or emails that had come. There was no way he was setting himself up for another fall. He still remembered how it felt when he had received the first email from Blair. At first, he had considered not even opening it - what the hell did Sandburg think a note could do? Make up somehow for the fact that he had walked out on their partnership? Well fine, he had proven to himself that he didn't need Blair. But, admittedly, after Sandburg had left, it was easier for Jim to keep his senses turned down. In fact, it was an effort to turn them up when he needed to really examine a crime scene but he could do it, and his zones and spikes were very rare now. He could still function as an organic crime lab - Blair's enthusiastic voice rang in his mind - but everything wasn't filtered through the senses of a sentinel anymore. Jim had gotten his wish; he was a good cop, a good detective, one with a bit of an edge, but not one who needed a babysitter to get his job done. Yeah, he got more headaches but nothing that some heavy-duty meds couldn't cure. After the media circus and Blair's departure, the whispers and looks he'd been receiving for years had pretty much died down. No more cracks about setting a hippie weirdo to catch crooks and the like... no more rumors about what exactly Sandburg did for him that would make Ellison keep a civilian observer on as partner and roommate when he was known to be a loner who liked it that way. Hell, Jim thought defensively, he liked his life! It was well-ordered, quiet, as predictable as a detective's life could be. Even the pyschos seemed to have set up shop elsewhere... hadn't been a serial killer or mad bomber in months.

Well, except for the latest serial killer.

The one he hadn't caught yet.

Growing weary of the lies he'd been telling himself for too long, Jim tuned back into Sandburg's conversation, guiltily aware that he was eavesdropping but unable to stop himself. Blair had eased himself away from the woman who had greeted him so enthusiastically and had quickly brought Sandburg up to date on her life before moving off, but she was still standing on the fringes of the crowd, watching and listening with avid interest.

"Hey, Jack, it's not the money. The NIH grant would move with me. There's just nothing to come back to in Cascade... no, I haven't heard from Jim in a while but Daryl - Simon Bank's son? - is attending Georgetown. He keeps in pretty close contact; he's got a study group that hangs out at my place twice a week."

"So, I can't talk you into a professorship? We've got a month before the fall semester starts. I'd make sure that you had the time to continue your research and consulting -"

"Be hard for you to top the deal I've got in DC, Jack. Teach a little, research a lot, do enough consultation to keep my hand in - you know that I do work with the District police, don't you? Man, they've got a cop that's a dead ringer for Jim - eerie."

"How about the friends you've got here, Blair? You spent a lot of years in Cascade. Put down some roots...." Kelso's voice was persuasive; but apparently not persuasive enough.

"Yeah? Where were all my friends when the diss went sour? I got a couple of calls, an e-mail or two... Eli went out on a limb for me, and Banks offered me a badge, but that was about it. And you, Jack; it would have been harder to recoup my reputation without you in my corner." Jim couldn't help cringing at the unaccustomed bitterness in Blair's voice.

The crowd had cleared enough that Ellison could see Kelso's easy, open grin, as he recounted some of what happened, "Hey, Blair, I'd like to tell you that you owe me, but I had much too much fun pinning Madam Chancellor to the wall. It was like conducting a major op again - memo trails and phone records, submission of witness statements and the drafts you'd prepared of the early chapters, all clearly showing a solid academic work in progress. You did have a lot of support behind the scenes, kid. Very few of your colleagues ever thought that you had committed fraud, but what the hell were they supposed to do after you stood up before God and everyone and claimed that you did just that? They knew you must have had your reasons and didn't want to screw anything up. I must say that your next act of bravado - seizing the opportunity to do an in-depth study of a media frenzy - wasn't anyone's guess, though."

Kelso's voice was warm with humor and reassurance, but Jim could see Blair begin to fidget. Jack frowned a bit in concern, evidently having made the same assessment Jim had from the younger man's behavior - Sandburg didn't like to spend time reminiscing about that period in his life. It was one thing to write a dissertation or give a speech about the issues raised by the media's behaviors, and another to chitchat about how others hadn't bought his denial. At least, that's what Ellison hoped was making the kid jumpy and he felt a pang that, even after all this time and the rift between them, Sandburg was still protecting him.

"Jack, this isn't the place to do this," Blair asserted, beginning to fuss with his notes. "I've got some people to see." Lifting his gaze back to Kelso, he seemed to force himself to relax. Reaching out to grip Jack's shoulder, he said with vulnerable candor, "Look, I'll get in touch with you before I leave town, okay? I really do want to spend some quality time with you, man."

Even from the back of the auditorium, Jim could hear Blair's upset in his voice, in the quick beat of his heart, and the tightness in his breathing, and dormant instincts of protection came back on-line. Jim had risen from his chair and was climbing over Simon before he fully realized what he was doing - instinctively moving to protect his Guide - and he stumbled in confusion. Banks unceremoniously pulled him back down into his chair and hissed, "Hold it, Jim. We're waiting until everyone else has pretty much gone, remember?"

Ellison nodded mutely, more than a bit upset with himself. He didn't need Blair, didn't need anyone - so why the hell was he ready to spring to the aid of someone who didn't need it, and probably didn't want it?

It's about friendship.

Memory's echoes of times past and friendship lost left him aching, and Jim unconsciously shook his head to deny the old words and emotions. All he wanted was for Sandburg to help him do a memory trance; to see if he could get a look at whatever it was that had been bothering him about the murder scenes. He didn't need Sandburg's help, and was sure he could solve the crimes himself; but as long as the kid was in town - and Banks had suggested it....

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

Blair kept a smile pasted on his face as he detached himself from the last of the academic groupies. He wanted... no, needed, to keep up a nice, calm, professional, professorial - professorial, for a moment his smile became real - façade if he wanted his obfuscation, that the entire 'dissaster' was a field study, to hold up. The subterfuge made him cringe more than a little, because he had to present himself as having posed as a bit of a conman masquerading as a fraudulent academic to carry it off, but the ruse seemed to work. His academic friends, and he had found out when he left Cascade that he had more of those than he thought he did, were more than ready to believe it. His enemies, and he had those too, rivals who had thought him safely out of the anthropological world, seemed to be accepting, grudgingly to be sure, his well-spun tale. He wasn't too surprised - he had carefully based his scenario on provable facts. Everything he said was truth, just not the whole truth.

Blair allowed himself a sigh of relief as he packed up his laptop. Finally, he could move on. Coming back to Rainier had been even harder than he thought it would be - way too many memories. He thought it ironic that it wasn't the bad memories that caused the most pain. But it had been worth it; he had laid to rest for once and all any possible residual doubt that the fraud charge had been true. He could move on.

Yeah, Sandburg, you just keep telling yourself that you want to move on. Maybe you'll even believe it someday.

Damn, but he couldn't believe just how very tempted he was by Jack's offer. Memories of the time when he had a sentinel and a friend cast a powerful spell on his heart. But his brain kept reminding him that every time he listened to his heart the penalties just got worse. Dying was comparatively easy when contrasted with the long, lonely months he had spent buried in work since declaring himself a fraud and leaving Cascade. At least death left you alone; didn't ambush you without warning the way a less than pristine reputation, or memories in odd moments, did. In the end, he was still sure he'd been right to leave, but he wished it hadn't had to cost his friendship with Jim. If he had stayed, Ellison would never have forgiven himself for letting that lie stand, nor Blair for making it necessary. Ultimately, Jim would have felt forced to tell the truth, Sandburg was certain of that. And that would only have put Jim's life in danger.

Get over it, Sandburg. Don't dwell in the past. 'Detach with love, Sweetie'.

Sandburg sighed again and picked up his laptop. It was time to head back to the hotel, take a shower, relax a bit, and decide which invitation to accept for the evening. Knocking back a few beers with the gang at the pub they had frequented when they were all grad students sounded good. He wanted to thank them for making the trek back to Cascade to hear his presentation. He could almost hear the laughter as they all competed on the longest trip award. He was pretty sure that Jocelyn would win that; she'd explained quickly before leaving him with Jack that she'd been studying or studying with, she wasn't quite sure which, monks in Tibet when she'd heard that he was presenting at the conference and decided it was time to make her own triumphal return - or so she'd just said with an ironic, maybe even bitter laugh.

"You always were a bit of a conman, weren't you?" she'd teased knowingly before moving away, leaving Blair to wonder which con she meant.

Lying about the diss to protect Jim? Lying now about lying then, as if it had all been planned from the beginning to create the right circumstances for his study of the media's impacts on society? Lying about being perfectly happy with his life, just the way it was? Never could put one over on Joce, he thought ruefully; she might have cut corners but her intelligence and her instincts had never been in question.

Shrugging off his morose musings, he returned to thinking about how to spend his evening. His Dean would certainly appreciate the interest that the Academic Press and John Hopkins University literary agents had in his study, and the representatives of the prestigious journals were still milling around the back of the auditorium. Maybe the solution would be to invite the reps to go the pub with his friends. A grin teased at the corners of his mouth - that might work; get in a little networking for the gang, too... and give him the chance to slip away early and unnoticed.

Deciding to try to catch up with them and invite the media reps for a drink with the gang back at the hotel, he bounded off the stage, energy restored, good humor returning, when a voice out of the past stopped him in his tracks.

"Excuse me, Doctor Sandburg but we could use a little help."

Simon? It couldn't be Simon.

But he knew it was. He'd know that voice anywhere. Taking a breath, fighting for composure, Blair slowly turned around and saw Banks, Joel and behind them, Jim.

His expectations for a pleasant evening crumbled.

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

Jim Ellison, Joel Taggart and Simon Banks were all trained detectives, astute observers of human nature and behavior. What they sensed in the stiffening posture of the former observer did not bode well for their mission. What they saw when Blair Sandburg turned around and faced them boded even less well for a good night's sleep. Deep blue eyes that had always held a mischievous yet heartfelt trust now were wary. The open, expansive body language of his conversations with his colleagues and peers was suddenly closed in... defensive. Joel's expression saddened while Simon tried his best to pretend he didn't notice.

Jim felt a little bit of anger grow, and he stiffened defensively in response, his expression flattening. He's all palsy-walsy with the people who ignored him after the Press Conference and the guys who got a self-professed fraud a job are suddenly persona non grata? Well, fuck this. I don't need his help. He opened his mouth to announce his decision when Simon beat him to it.

"Heard from Daryl, Sandburg; wanted to say thanks for keeping an eye on him. I'm sure you knew before I did that he made Dean's list?" Banks said with an uncomfortable joviality that might have been forced, but his words and expression were obviously sincere.

Warmth crept back into the deep blue eyes. "He's a good student, Simon, and a better man."

"Can't take all the credit for that, Sandburg," Simon rumbled modestly and then switched gears abruptly. "Fascinating talk you gave tonight, Doctor. It was especially interesting to hear about your work with other people with enhanced senses." All three cops saw the wary glance Sandburg shot in Ellison's direction before returning his attention to Simon.

"Yeah, I guess that was one good thing that came out of the Press Conference," Blair sighed, but rallied as if attempting to recover some of his former ebullience. As Blair continued more enthusiastically, Simon wondered sadly if anyone who had been there would ever drop the capital letters. "Those people who were experiencing enhanced senses might have believed that Jim wasn't a sentinel, but they weren't willing to believe that I didn't have some answers. And when the NIH got involved after I did my doctorate at GU, it just snowballed. Helped to keep the studies' subjects confidential after seeing the kind of hassles the media could cause. And the proto-Sentinels knew they could trust me." His voice sounded cold as he cut another glance from under long lashes at Ellison, who had never quite mastered that trait.

Before Jim could respond to what he perceived as a quick jibe, feeling as he were pushing a boulder uphill, Simon ploughed on manfully. "I'm sure I owe you dinner, Sandburg. Want to collect?"

Blair's gaze dropped away and he looked around nervously before answering uncomfortably, "Um, look, Simon, thanks, but I've got people to see, things to do. I'm not in Cascade very long -"

"Blair," Banks interrupted, and was pleased to note that his use of Sandburg's first name still got his former observer's close attention. Playing on that response, keeping his tone warm and sincere, he went on, "Blair, we've had a series of murders; Jim is pretty sure he's picked something up at the scenes that could identify the killer, but he can't put his finger on what it is. It's the kind of thing you used to be able to help him in remembering."

"And you want me to help now?" Blair hedged in disbelieving astonishment, incredulity in his face as he gaped from one to the other and back again to Simon.

Banks ignored Ellison's warning growl and pushed on. "I want you to help. Jim wants to catch the guy doing this. We've got five young men dead in the last two weeks - men only a little older than you, and it's not pretty. They were all, uh, mutilated. We're ready to try anything."

Sandburg snorted. "You'd have to be desperate to try me. Jim and I... we weren't working very well together at the end."

"You can't let it go, can you? Can't keep blaming me for everything that went wrong?" Ellison grated as he entered the conversation for the first time. Taggart rolled his eyes and sighed, while Banks winced at the sense of ill-usage compounded by challenge in his senior detective's tone.

Sandburg locked eyes with Ellison. No more quick glances, uncertain asides; in that moment he was a double doctorate at home with himself and his place in the world, not someone dependent on the good will and uncertain loyalties of anyone. "It turns out, Jim, that it was no one's fault. Just the way this sentinel/guide thing works. Look," Blair said abruptly, "there are things I've discovered, researched, that you need to know. And certainly," he nodded at Simon, "if there is anything I can do to keep anyone from being murdered, I'll do it. Mutilation suggests there might be some sort of ritual involved, and I might be able to help with ideas about that, too. But this isn't the place."

Ellison had latched onto Sandburg's statement: no one's fault. Not his - when he'd believed deep down that he had finally driven his guide away; nor his guide's - who had allowed himself to be driven away. He'd been telling himself a lie since the day Sandburg had walked out - that it was inevitable, no one's fault really, just life -- but it was only a rationale that had permitted him to bury his guilt and grief and go on. Now, when he'd thought it was impossible, that lie might, incredibly, be true. But that still left him feeling bereft, incomplete somehow, and he didn't want that to be all there was to it. Before he even knew he was going to speak, he offered spontaneously, "We can go back to the loft. Order some takeout, pick it up on the way." Almost like before.

Sandburg shook his head; even unconsciously stepped back as if he couldn't face that idea. "You need to hear about my research first, Jim. I don't know that I could help you until you understand what was happening before I left, why I couldn't be the partner you wanted; until we clear the air about that...." His voice trailed off when Jim looked away sharply, both of them feeling the other was rejecting them, and both hurt badly by that belief.

Sensing that a tentative peace was about to fall apart before it had barely begun, Banks interjected quickly, "My place, then. Or the station."

Blair shook his head vehemently this time, curls flying everywhere. "Not the station, Simon," Blair objected. "Even after all this time, I can't imagine most cops have forgiven, let alone forgotten, what I did."

Jim winced, but Simon and Joel just looked dumbfounded. "What do you mean?" Joel exclaimed. "You're practically a hero downtown."

"Yeah, right," Blair snorted with a wry grimace.

Frowning, Banks cut a quick look at Jim. "Didn't you ever tell him?" he demanded sharply, unable to believe that Ellison hadn't let Sandburg know he'd be welcomed back with open arms. All this time, Banks had believed that Blair had simply chosen not to return, to pursue a different life elsewhere; regrettable, certainly, but understandable.

Jim shrugged, bowed his head as he gave it a shake and looked away from the growing confusion in Sandburg's eyes.

"Tell me what?" the younger man asked. "What are you talking about?"

"Blair," Banks replied after a last disbelieving look at Ellison, "nobody downtown believed your Press Conference. Apparently, for years more people had noticed something was going on between you and Jim than any of us ever imagined, and all the media hype only explained to them some of what it was all about. Nobody was happy about what you had to do to protect your partner, but they all accepted it and respected you for it - and have kept the secret."

"On the annual questionnaires," Joel added, wanting to give Blair good news, and innocently making the situation infinitely worse, "you know the ones about work satisfaction and stuff? On the question asked about what people want in a partner, the most common answer now is, 'I want a Sandburg'. Your name has come to represent a partner who will go to the wall, and then to hell and gone, for his partner."

Blair paled as he looked from Joel to Simon, his lips parting in shock as hecame to grips with all that that meant. Blinking, he turned to Jim as he whispered hoarsely, "I could've come back and you never told me?" He turned away from the other two men, his voice dropping further still until no one but Jim could hear him. "You really did despise me and want me gone, didn't you? You still do. That's why you never -" But his voice caught, nearly broke, and he couldn't go on. Swallowing heavily, he took a shuddering breath before turning back to Banks. "Simon, I don't know if I can -" he began, his voice laden with the old pain, his hard won defenses destroyed.

"Chief, you don't understand," Jim cut in sharply, wanting to explain, but Blair held up a hand as he interjected with a defeated tone, "Don't call me that, man. I think it's pretty clear that -"

Quickly, Banks cut in before it all came apart. "Blair," he rumbled, his deep voice drowning theirs out. "We need your help. Please. Whatever else is going on here, we'll deal with that, but we all have to remember innocent people are dying."

Ellison turned half away from the devastation in Sandburg's eyes, struggling with his emotions. Dammit. How had his desire to allow Blair have his own life, to live safely away from the dangers he'd faced for too many years, gotten turned around like this? God, but he wanted to punch something. He dragged in a deep breath, fighting for control, and then stiffened in protective alarm as something caught his attention. Something that didn't belong here. Didn't belong anywhere near Sandburg! But he couldn't catch it and Blair's voice intruded, capturing all of his attention.

"I... alright," Blair sighed as he raked trembling fingers through his hair. Nodding, he stiffened his spine, unwittingly giving the impression of a man about to face a firing squad. "Alright," he said again, more strongly, as he grappled with his crumbling control and won back a measure of dignity, "I'll come down to the station. Guess that's the best place to go over the case file anyway."

"Good man," Simon approved warmly, solidly and reassuringly pounding Blair's shoulder a couple times before taking the younger man's briefcase and ushering them all toward the exit. "Let's go."

Sandburg couldn't bring himself to look at Ellison as he strode up the aisle of the auditorium and then out into the lobby. A group of his friends and a number of the journal reps were waiting there, and flashbulbs popped, capturing him with members of the Police Department. Jim, who had unconsciously opened his senses, grunted and flinched as he lifted a hand over his eyes and Blair, without even thinking, murmured, "Dial it down, Jim." And then he, too, winced at the pain those simple words evoked.

"Hey, man, ready to head to the pub?" one of his waiting friends called out.

"Uh, no, sorry, I can't; not right away," Blair replied with a forced grin. "Turns out, there're a few things I need to do first. Tell you what, why don't all of you go on ahead and I'll try to meet you there. I'd really love to spend some time catching up with you before I head back to DC. It really means a lot to me that you all showed up to see me."

Evident disappointment rippled through the group and the cops felt rotten for not only having led to a return to the sorrowful state Blair had been in when he left long months before, but for also keeping him from friends who would have shown him a good time.

"When are you going back, Blair?" Joce called, looking annoyed that the group's plans for the evening had been foiled.

"Probably tomorrow, but I'm not really sure," he replied with a glance at Simon. "Depends on... well, I might be here for a few more days."

"Where are you staying?" another young woman called out. "Maybe we could meet you at the hotel later or tomorrow night?"

Blair brightened a bit at that. "I'm at the Sea Coast downtown. Yeah, if I get held up tonight, tomorrow night would be great."

"We'd better get going," Simon encouraged as he led the way through the crowd, and Blair nodded, following on his heels. Close behind him, his feeling of threat persisting, Jim recognized some of the people as friends who had visited the loft in the past, and the woman who had run up to hug Sandburg earlier, but didn't see anyone who could account for the frisson of danger that rippled along his spine. Bringing up the rear, Joel wondered what the media would have to say in the morning papers about them all being together. Outside, Simon waved Blair into the front seat, where he sat hunched in on himself, and they were all stiffly silent on the way downtown.

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

Despite what Joel and Simon had said, Blair was flabbergasted by the warmth of his welcome at the PD. From the moment they left Banks' car to stride across the parking garage, and someone stopped him, he was hailed from every side as police officers, both uniform and plainclothes, came to shake his hand, ask him how he was doing with what certainly seemed like real interest and concern, and ask if he was back to stay - with hope in their voices. In the hallway and elevator, as people entered and left, he was met with solicitous concern and glad greetings every step of the way. When they emerged on the sixth floor, he looked at Banks and Taggart, and shook his head in amazement.

"I can't believe it," he said softly, barely able to speak past the lump in his throat.

Joel gripped his shoulder as they moved toward MCU and replied with the hint of a smile, "Yeah, well, I guess a lot of us have found that helping Jim isn't as easy as you always made it look, Blair. We all know he did better with you, and we'd all be glad to see the old team back in harness."

Blair didn't need Ellison's senses to hear the snort. "You make me sound incompetent, Joel," Jim grunted defensively. "And let's remember, we all wanted him to stay. It was Sandburg's decision to go."

Simon rolled his eyes at the embittered tone. "Nobody's saying you're not doing a good job, Jim," he rumbled. "We're just saying we've seen you do it better - and you know, better than anyone, how true that is."

Though it was nearly six o'clock when they walked into the Ops Center, everyone was there, waiting. They'd all known that the others had gone to appeal to Sandburg for help and had hoped he'd respond favorably.

"Oh, Sandy!" Megan called out excitedly, spotting them first, and she hurried across the room to envelope him in a tight hug. "God, mate, I've missed you!"

"Blair!" Rafe acknowledged more quietly but with no less sincerity, and Brown exclaimed jubilantly, "Hairboy's back!" as a big smile lit his face.

"Congratulations, Dr. Sandburg," Rhonda grinned when she got her turn to wrap him in a hug.

Simon gave them all a few moments to greet their errant lamb, while Joel smiled paternally and Jim hung back, his expression guarded, his eyes glittering with a maelstrom of emotion. He resented Joel and Simon's words, though he couldn't deny them. He had been better, a lot better, with Blair beside him. But so what? He still had a solid arrest record. It wasn't as if he couldn't solve crimes or wasn't doing his job. And what kind of pressure were they putting on Sandburg with such comments? Hell, anyone could see the kid was doing just great in his new life. He didn't need to be loaded down with other people's expectations. Blair hadn't wanted this - hadn't wanted to be Jim's partner, not enough to face the challenges it would have presented. As he watched the younger man, smiling and joking, looking every inch the cheerful creature he'd always been, Jim could hear the lie in the accelerated heartbeat and shallow respirations. Sandburg might look happy enough, but he was far from having a good time. Ellison was too well aware that his former partner would rather be anywhere than there.

And that hurt - badly. In the last two hours, watching and listening to Sandburg, being near him, Jim felt as if he had been blind and could now see, deaf and could now hear. Everything was clearer, brighter, more present. But more than that, more painful, was the realization of how very much he'd missed his friend - the bright smile and lilting laugh, the teasing, and the bone-deep understanding that had existed between them, the almost psychic way Blair had of knowing how he was feeling and even, often enough to be disconcerting, what he was thinking. And what he needed. Knowing how much he ached to have Sandburg back in his life, while at the same time witnessing how little the kid wanted to be near him, was like being gutted and left with nothing but anguish and pain as he died slowly, without hope of reprieve.

When he saw the slight tremble in the lean fingers being nervously raked through the long curls, and the first sheen of impending tears appear in his guide's eyes, he had to fight past the lump in his own throat to rasp, "Shouldn't we be getting this show on the road?"

Simon glanced at him and saw how intently he was watching Sandburg, the naked concern for Blair in Jim's eyes, and nodded. "Right, okay, people," he called pleasantly, but with the bite of authority, "Dr. Sandburg is a busy man and we don't want to be taking too much of his time. Blair, let's go into my office."

Blair threw him a grateful glance and, as soon as the others cleared a path, he moved swiftly into the inner sanctuary and, with unconscious habit, sank into his usual chair. Joel didn't follow them in, but stayed to tell the others in glowing terms about Sandburg's brilliant speech late that afternoon so, as soon as Jim had entered behind him, Simon closed the door. Once they were all settled around the table, Banks handed the file to Ellison as he said, "It's your case, you brief him."

Jim flicked his boss a hard look, but took the sheaf of documents and opened it on the burnished wood in front of him. Without looking at Sandburg, he began, "As Simon told you earlier, in the past two weeks five men have been killed in similar if not exact ways." Lifting out the crime photos, he began handing them to Blair one at a time as he listed the victims dispassionately, described the circumstances of their murders and what they'd learned so far.

"Mark Danson, Caucasian, lawyer, single, thirty-four-years old. Found in his bed, a stab wound in his chest, direct to the heart and his genitals slashed off. The evidence shows he'd recently participated in sexual intercourse with a woman. We found a long, black hair under one of the pillows and that's all she left behind. No one saw her enter or leave his apartment, and no one knows who his date was supposed to be that night."

Blair gaped at Jim and swallowed hard, trying not to cringe as he took the photo. Bad enough to see someone he knew murdered like that, but a distant part of his mind wondered if any man could look at such savage castration without a good deal of discomfort, not to mention the queasy threat of nausea and atavistic repulsion. Studying it, he murmured, "I knew this guy; years ago, when I was an undergrad."

"Sorry, Ch- uh, Sandburg," Jim sighed, regretting even more deeply their decision to bring Blair in on the case, but there was no choice now but to continue. Reaching for the next photo, he said, "Tom Stinson, Caucasian, local businessman, thirty-four. Married, no children. Found three days later in his car, a knife wound in his heart and his genitals slashed. We presume it was too difficult for her to undress him in order to complete the ritual. This time, though, we found short blond hairs on the passenger seat."

After Blair had taken that photo, he went on, "Stuart Burgis, African-American, Athletics Coach at Rosemount High, divorced, thirty-five. Found in his home two days after the Stinson murder, after having had sexual intercourse. Same stab wound to the heart. Genitals removed. Curly red hairs this time."

"She's wearing wigs," Blair murmured with a frown as he took the picture, and Jim nodded at the obvious conclusion. Shaking his head, Sandburg said stiffly, "I didn't know this guy personally, but I know his name. He was a star player on Rainier's football team before he... well, he was expelled for trying to buy exam answers in his senior year."

Simon's eyes narrowed as he gazed at Jim. Ellison shook his head and sighed, "We didn't know either of them had attended Rainier. They both show graduation from other universities."

"What about the others?" Banks asked.

Jim leafed through the notes on the two remaining victims and then pulled out Danson's file. "Let's see," he murmured. "Allen Beckman, thirty-four, single, killed in his office after hours - he was a computer technician. Graduated from Washington U. David Myers, thirty-four, married, killed in an alley not far from where his car was parked. Another businessman. Graduated from Berkeley. And Danson graduated from Michigan State."

"David?" Blair gasped, paling. "But... he was in several of my classes when I was an undergrad."

The two older men frowned at him, but their gazes were distant as they started putting new possibilities together. "If he was in your class, why didn't he graduate from Rainier?" Simon asked thoughtfully.

"Well, he also got caught cheating," Sandburg replied. "It was sad, really. He was a really nice guy and felt a lot of pressure from his father to make the grade for medical school but he just wasn't getting the marks. He was in my intro psych course. Anyway, he was caught trying to steal the copy of an exam from the prof's desk."

"That's three from Rainier," Jim mused, a frown of concentration furrowing his brow. "This is the first possible connection we've been able to come up with - up until now, the murders appeared completely random."

"You said you knew Danson," Banks reflected. "Do you know why he transferred to another school?"

Blair grimaced and shrugged. "Not really, not for sure. There were rumors that he'd date-raped another student, a male actually. All very hush-hush, and nobody really believed it. Mark was a charmer and was more likely to have fight somebody off than force his attentions on the object of his current desire. But it couldn't have been pleasant for him, the rumors I mean. Anyway, his Dad was pretty rich and all we knew for sure was that one day he was at Rainier and the next he had transferred to a school back east."

"The forensics say he was with a woman the night he was killed," Jim stated, having quickly verified the lab report.

"Mark, uh, swung both ways," Sandburg replied simply with a shrug.

"Three connections," Banks snapped, not happy that they'd missed the links, but knowing there would have been no reason to probe school records from ten or more years in the past. "Rainier and being bounced for cheating - it's beginning to look like a pattern."

"This is good, Blair, thanks," Jim murmured as he replaced the photos and documents in the file folder. "I'll check the records at Rainier in the morning. What's the best source to see if the other two were also students there at one time and, if so, if they were also expelled or left under some cloud?"

"The Admissions Office would have records about past enrolment," Sandburg replied, but he shook his head. "Not sure, though, how you'd find out why they left. Discipline records aren't always kept, not if the student leaves before they are expelled, or if, well, if some 'arrangement' was made with their parents." He thought about it for a moment. "What were their degrees on graduation?"

Once again referring to the files, Jim replied, "Uh, Beckman, Computer Science; Stinson, M.B.A."

Nodding, Sandburg offered, "Professor Lawson has been in Computer Sciences at Rainier forever, so he might remember Beckman. I never took any business courses, so I don't know that faculty at all, but the departmental chairman might know who could help. That's Dr. Nathaniel Monroe."

Jim smiled, glad to have leads to work with and something to dig his teeth into. "Thanks, Ch- Sandburg. This is a lot of help."

"But why would someone be killing guys who flunked out or were thrown out of Rainier more than a dozen years ago?" Blair asked, mystified. "It doesn't make any sense."

"Not to you, maybe," Jim agreed, "or to us, either, for that matter. Not yet, at least. But the killer must have a reason that makes sense to her."

Staring at the file, thinking about the photos he'd seen, Blair's lips tightened. "She's got a real hate on for men, that's for sure," he murmured. "How could no one have seen her? There must have been a lot of blood and some of it would have had to splatter her, right?"

"Not necessarily," Ellison replied. "Dan Wolf thinks death might have been almost instantaneous, so they wouldn't have bled a lot, not if she waited a bit before doing the butchering. The weapon seems to be a stiletto, but one with an unusually sharp edge as well as the typical sharp-tipped dagger design."

"She must have known them all - I mean, she slept with some, was in the car with another and the others let her get real close. Was there any evidence of resistance?" Blair asked, curious; his mind unable to resist the puzzle.

Ellison shook his head. "Nope. From the position of the wounds on the men who were standing when she attacked, Dan estimates that she's about your height, Chief. And, she knows what she's doing, in terms of direct thrusts up and into the heart and is probably reasonably strong, certainly quite fit."

Simon watched the two men across the table, a speculative glint in his eyes. As they'd gotten caught up in the case, they had both seemed to forget the tension between them - Sandburg hadn't even appeared to notice when Jim slipped and called him 'Chief'. His unbeatable team was once again doing their thing - and, in less than half an hour, Sandburg had given them information that might well lead to more.

Or might not, he reflected as he thought about the victims. They were all from different academic backgrounds and, while they might have been at Rainier in overlapping years, there was nothing really to connect them other than possibly the fact that they'd left under a cloud. All seemed to have learned their lesson in the intervening years, though, because all of the men had been leading successful lives when they'd died. Better than successful in some cases; three of them had been verging on wealthy, in part from their family backgrounds, and in part from their career success. What would tie the killer to such disparate men as a lawyer, a football and track coach, two businessmen and a computer specialist? Other than maybe a prostitute, their only theory to date, and that suspicion had taken them nowhere so far.

Maybe the sensory clue that Ellison knew was there but couldn't seem to access would give them something.

"When was the last body found?" Sandburg asked, wondering if there was any pattern.

"Three days ago," the detective replied with a shrug, understanding without words - as Blair understood the answer. No pattern in the timing. No way to predict when the next hit would be as the killer was probably striking opportunistically. Jim frowned then, as he too thought about the possible connections they now had - and about another Rainier cast-off who had graduated from elsewhere, and was now sitting next to him. Swallowing to moisten his suddenly dry mouth, he looked away, wondering if the fact that Sandburg no longer lived in Cascade made any difference to the danger he might well be in, so long as he remained in the city.

"Anything at all at the scenes that was odd or out of place?" Blair persisted, knowing that Jim could pick up what anyone, hell, everyone else would miss.

Ellison's brow furled and he scratched his cheek as he shrugged. "There was something, small bits of cooked grain - barley - that smelled as if it had been soaked in beer. But that's led us nowhere, at least so far."

Regretfully, knowing any mention of Jim's senses would remind them of their current estrangement, Simon sighed and said, "Sandburg, you've been a big help already but, uh, we really need to know if you can help Jim do that thing with his senses - you know, to help him remember or identify what he thinks he may be missing."

Immediately, both men stiffened and pulled back from the way they'd been leaning over the file, shoulders almost touching.

"Uh, right," Blair muttered, pushing his hair back behind his ears.

Jim rubbed the back of his neck, his thoughts jumbled by the rush of protectiveness he felt and an urgent desire to immediately put Sandburg on a plane back east. "Captain," he muttered, his voice taut, "I just realized that we know another potential victim."

Simon's expression clouded as he worked out the momentary confusion of the non sequitur, and then understanding dawned as he shifted his gaze to Sandburg. The younger man looked from one to the other and then he, too, caught Jim's meaning. "Oh, now wait. You don't seriously think -" he began uncertainly. "But I was just a kid then, way younger than these guys. We were at the same school and in some of the same classes, but we sure didn't move in the same social circles. And they were all kicked out at least ten years before... before I was."

"Yeah, I do think," Jim grunted, manifestly unsettled.

"Jim's got a point, Blair," Simon interjected, his tone conciliatory. "We have no idea how the killer picks the victims. Despite your fancy footwork on what occurred a year and a half ago, it can certainly be said that you left Rainier in disgrace."

Blair slumped back against his chair, his lips thin and his arms crossed as he shook his head abstractedly while he thought about their concerns. Finally, he looked back up at the other two men and said flatly, "Then I guess we need to get as much info as we can about this woman." Turning to Jim, he sat up straighter as he asked, his voice strained, "Will you let me put you into a light trance, to see if we can get at what you can't remember? Can you trust me that much anymore?"

Again, Jim stiffened defensively. "I told you that it was never about trust - you just didn't believe me," he retorted tightly.

"Yeah, I remember," Sandburg replied, slumping in weariness. He looked as if he were about to say more, but then shrugged and looked away.

Simon scowled; he had the feeling that there was a great deal the kid wasn't saying and, from the look on Ellison's face, he figured his detective had the same impression, but didn't understand what was going on in the kid's head any better than he did. Well, there would be time to work all that out later. In the meantime, they had a killer to catch. "Okay, so let's on it with it," he urged looking from one to the other.

Blair sighed and nodded. Straightening in his chair, he turned to Ellison and said, "You know the drill. Close your eyes and take slow deep breaths. Just relax; don't focus on anything. Just breathe."

Jim's lips tightened as he cut an almost furtive and certainly uncomfortable glance at Simon, but he too sat up straighter and closed his eyes. There was silence, then, in the office, but the air was thick with tension. In the quiet, they could hear voices outside as other team members went about their work. Phones rang. File cabinet doors opened and closed. Someone dropped a mug and Blair frowned when Jim flinched.

"This isn't working," he finally rasped, opening his eyes.

"Too much ambient noise," Sandburg agreed with an understanding nod. "Too many distractions."

"And maybe you two don't need an audience when you do this - whatever it is," Simon allowed uncomfortably and they didn't disagree. "So. What now? You want to go to my place?" he continued, looking at Blair. "I think we should stay clear of the hotel until we have a better idea of what's going on here and if you're at risk."

Jim shifted restlessly and cast a sidelong look at Blair.

"You want to go back to your place, don't you?" Sandburg murmured, sounding defeated. Looking away, he went on, trying for a rational, analytical tone, "Makes sense, I guess. This isn't easy and it helps to be in a comfortable, safe place when you let all your defenses down."

"If it helps to get the killer," Jim muttered, irritated by how very clear it was that Sandburg didn't want to go anywhere near the loft, and frustrated with himself for needing the security it represented. Sighing, he tried to quash his resentment at the way Blair described his need in such distant and academic terms, as if they were little better than strangers.

"Yeah, right," Sandburg sighed, pushing himself to his feet. "Well, there doesn't seem to be much choice, does there?"

"Sorry to inconvenience you," Ellison growled, annoyed by the air of martyrdom, as he, too, stood. What was so terrible about going back to the loft? The kid had found it comfortable enough to live in for nearly four years, hadn't he? But more, he felt hurt; it wasn't the apartment that Blair didn't want to be near, it was him, and he knew it. And he didn't know what to do about that, how to bridge the wide gulf that had grown between them. With profound sorrow, he didn't know if Sandburg even wanted to find a way to restore a measure of their old comfort together.

Blair stiffened at Jim's rejoinder, but didn't say anything and he kept his eyes averted from the older man. Simon's lips thinned, and he shook his head, sorry to see a good partnership gone so bad. But he tried to keep them focused on the job at hand. "Let me know if you come up with anything," he directed as they made their way toward the door.

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

Sandburg was uncharacteristically silent during the drive to the loft; the wordless stillness would have been unheard of with the former Blair, but Jim wasn't sure he knew the man sitting in his truck anymore. The kid felt like a stranger, not someone who had been his best friend and partner for years. The tangible wariness and air of what almost looked like despondency saddened Ellison and he shook his head. More and more it seemed that any hope he might have harbored deep in the secret recesses of his soul, that they might somehow use this forced reunion to effect a reconciliation of sorts, seemed to be doomed.

When they arrived at the loft, Blair got out of the truck and stood looking up at the building and the windows on the third floor, his expression inscrutable, but then he bowed his head. His shoulders slumped and he pushed his hands into his jean pockets, as he came around the truck and paused, waiting for Jim to lead off. Ellison could hear his erstwhile roommate's heart begin to do a tap dance, and the kid looked a little pale. 'And is that sweat on his brow?' Jim wondered, his gaze narrowing, as his nose twitched, assessing the scent. The evening was a little too cool for Blair to be feeling overheated. Shit! Sandburg was afraid! Of what? Him? What the hell was going on here?

"You okay?" he asked as they ambled slowly toward the entrance.

"Sure, why wouldn't I be?" Blair replied, but his voice was taut and he was still avoiding eye contact.

"Chief, uh, Sandburg," Jim stumbled, feeling awkward. But he wasn't sure what to say or ask.

"Look, I know you're doing this under duress and would prefer not to need my help," Sandburg sighed as they entered the building. "And, believe me, I remember what you said when I left, so I know you're not thrilled with having to have me back here," he continued in a low spate of words. "But, it's necessary, I guess. So let's just do our best to get it done and I'll get out of your hair."

Ellison gaped at Blair's back as the younger man headed into the stairwell, the elevator again on the fritz. And he frowned, trying to remember what he'd said when Sandburg had left, that had left such an indelible impression that the pain of the memory was still clear in the kid's voice.

As he followed Blair up the two flights, he recalled they'd talked about why Sandburg didn't believe being a cop was the answer, and Jim remembered being, well, scared, he guessed, that it was falling apart and he didn't know how to stop Blair from leaving. He remembered the distracting pain in his leg - and the anger he felt at the thought that the kid would just up and leave like that - to go back to academia? The world that had rejected him and hurt him so badly? And he sure in hell wouldn't forget Sandburg's anger and hurt over how he'd reacted when the media got on his case, flash bulbs going off, keeping him from doing his job, microphones in his face all the damned time. Sure he'd been angry and distant. It had been all he could do to keep his roiling emotions leashed at the time, and yes, he had directed his frustration and helpless fury toward Sandburg. They'd gotten past that, though, hadn't they? He'd thought they had, in the hospital before they went after Zeller and couldn't believe that Sandburg was still tied in knots over what had happened, and was going to leave because of it. But what had he said that left Blair with the impression that he didn't want him darkening his door again? It was only as they came out on the upper landing that he recalled the desperate and angry words with a sinking feeling.

If you leave now, don't ever come back!

And, he thought, his shoulders slumping, his silence to any and all messages and cards since had no doubt only reinforced words he scarcely remembered uttering, and had only said in the heat of the moment because it hurt so badly to see Blair walk out of his life. As he unlocked the door and led the way inside, he said softly, "Sandburg, I... I appreciate you being willing to help me with this."

"Yeah, right," Blair sighed, but then regretted his bitterness when he saw Jim look away. Ellison had held out the olive branch, after all. And Sandburg didn't want to fight. "Sorry," he murmured immediately. "Guess we're both a bit tense. Look, uh, why don't you make yourself comfortable on the couch and we'll work through the relaxation exercises."

Ellison nodded and moved stiffly to the sofa. Sitting down, he forced himself to rest his head on the back and close his eyes as he took a long slow breath and then another. Watching him as he moved to sit on the coffee table, Blair smiled, if wistfully, remembering so many happier similar moments in the past. "Okay," he murmured, his tones deepening. "That's it. Now, I want you to tighten and then relax your muscles, from your neck and shoulders... tighten... relax, and now your fingers... hands... arms. Good, Jim, very good. Now your chest, breathe deep and let it go. Deep... and let it go." Gradually, he worked Ellison through the full relaxation process and when Jim was breathing easily, and the tension around his lips and eyes was gone, Blair murmured softly, "You noticed something at a crime scene, something that's just outside your grasp, right?"

"Yeah, at every one of them," Jim sighed.

"Okay. We're going to figure out what you know is there," Sandburg continued. "Think back to when you first noticed it... when you arrived? After you'd been there for a while?

Jim frowned and his eyes darted under his lids as he envisioned each scene.

"Good, walk your way through the memories. You've just arrived at the first scene. You've come in the door and you're heading to the guy's bedroom to look for -"

"Wait," Jim muttered, frustrated. "It's...."

"Don't push it; it'll come," Blair encouraged softly. "So, it's something you picked up as soon as you walked in the door. Look around, remember what was there. Anything that shouldn't be?"

After a moment, Ellison shook his head. "No, nothing."

"Is there a noise, some sound..."

Again, a negative shake.

"A scent -"

Deep into his memory, Jim sniffed, and then stiffened. "Yes... something... the cooked grain and beer."

"Okay, good. Now set those scents aside and filter them out. Slow down, don't reach for it. Let it come to you. Is it there anything else that smells wrong?"

"Light. Sweet but with a pungent..."

"A perfume?"

Jim thought about it and slowly nodded. "But, it's not a scent I've ever come across before. Exotic."

"Okay, remember that scent. Anything else?"

Jim wrinkled his nose, and pressed his closed eyes into a squint. "Uh... there's a very faint scent of... um, garlic?"

"Wow, Jim... that's great!" Sandburg enthused, though he kept his voice low. "Were the scents coming from the kitchen?"

"No, that's what's so odd - the scents are strongest in the bedroom, but still faint," Ellison replied with a puzzled, thoughtful look.

"Okay, anything else, other smells that seem out of place or different, not expected?"

Jim shook his head.

"Okay, let's just go to the next crime scene," Blair murmured. "You there?" When Jim nodded, he asked, "Do you smell the same -"

"Yes!" Jim cut in, elated. "Exactly the same!"

Blair smiled at Jim's success and very obvious satisfaction in having discerned what had eluded him so annoyingly. "Alright, before we leave that scene - it was the car, right? Anything else?"

Jim cocked his head a little to the side. "Just that odd bit of scattered grain...."

"Did you touch it? Smell it?" Blair asked, nearly holding his breath. "Was it exactly the same?"

Unconsciously, Ellison rubbed his fingers and thumb together. "Cooked. Feels like... barley. Soaked in beer. Yeah. The same."

"You are so amazing, man," Blair breathed, unconsciously resting his hand on Ellison's knee. "Okay, just go through the rest of the crime scenes to check if you get a match on the smells or the grain."

Jim was silent for the next minute and then he opened his eyes as he leaned forward, lifting a hand to grip Sandburg's shoulder, "You did it!" he exclaimed. "I remember!" But the two men seemed to become aware they were estranged at the same time, as Ellison's hand dropped and Sandburg pulled away and stood up.

"Garlic's pretty common. The grain's pretty common, I guess, if weird. The perfume, though, if it's exotic...." Blair muttered, pushing his fingers through his hair to loop it back behind his ears, wanting to focus on the case and only the case. "We need to try to get a handle on that. Maybe we need to check out floral shops or body oil shops..."

And both of them recalled poignantly the first time they had ever worked together. It seemed so long ago; another time, where there had only been excitement and hope, not the tension and alienation that existed between them now.

"We can do that tomorrow afternoon, after I've spoken to the people at Rainier to see if I can connect the victims and find out if all five went to school there," Jim replied, his throat tight. "You'll, uh, come with me, right?"

Blair nodded though his gaze fell away as he hedged, "Not to Rainier; you don't need me there. But, the perfume shops, sure. Whatever you need, man." He gave himself a shake and picked up the jacket he'd tossed onto the loveseat on his way into the living room. "I guess I should be heading back to the hotel," he said drearily.

"Chi - uh, Sandburg, you can't go back to that hotel," Jim said soberly.

"What?" Blair objected. "You can't be serious! All my stuff..."

"We can get your stuff," Ellison cut in again. Lifting his hands for peace, he continued, "Look, I... I smelled the same perfume this afternoon, only I didn't realize what it was. And garlic. Not sure about the grain, but it bothered me and made me think immediately about the crime scenes. She was there, Chief. I know she was there. Plus, you announced to all who were listening back at the auditorium exactly where they might find you. We have no way of knowing if the killer was in the crowd."

"Perfume, garlic? C'mon, Jim, that's a reach. I think that might be just a tad paranoid," Sandburg replied disbelievingly. "I know all the people who were there when we left. We were friends at Rainier. Except for the journal reps, sure, but what would they care about -"

"I'm telling you that you can't go back there. As of now, you're under police protection," Jim snapped, also standing. "You fit the profile and I know she was there! So, you choose. You stay here in your old room for the night, we call Simon so you can bunk there, or I go with you back to the hotel. What's it going to be? Because I will not risk you being the next victim!"

"Like you'd care," Blair muttered under his breath, the words indistinct, as he turned away, shaking his head. He did not want to crash at Simon's place; nor did he want Jim camping out in the small hotel room all night. Too close. Way too close.

Jim blinked at the bitter words and tone, and shook his head as if he couldn't believe what he'd just heard. "You think I wouldn't care if something happened to you?" he breathed, his voice thin. "You really believe that?"

Startled, Blair looked back over his shoulder and saw the incredulity on Ellison's face... and the dismay. His eyes narrowed and he seemed perplexed, even bewildered, as if he'd found a puzzle piece the wrong color and shape to fit into the whole. But then his shoulders sagged and he bowed his head. Jim was a good guy, and they had been friends for a heck of a long time. Helplessly, he lifted his hands as he said very softly, "Guess I... well, I guess I figured you'd stopped caring about what happened to me a long time ago. A long time ago."

"Blair, I know things have gone way off the rails, here," Jim replied, the ache of sincere vulnerability lacing his words. "But... you're my friend, Chief. I'll always care what happens to you. I wasn't the one who walked away."

Sandburg flinched as if the words were a physical slap. "I had to go," he grated.

"Why? I still don't understand why!" Jim exclaimed. "You could have gone to the Academy. Gotten your badge. It could have worked!"

"No, it wouldn't have worked," Sandburg argued, turning to face the detective. "Did you ever think about what I said that night? When I explained..."

Ellison shook his head. "Explained what?" he demanded heatedly. "Some mumbo jumbo about how IA would be on your case; or that I didn't trust you, or I was kicking you out? That was crap, Sandburg. I was not kicking you out - you threw the offer of a badge back in my face and you walked out. It was all a bunch of fancy excuses as to why you didn't want to be my partner on the Force. Why don't you just admit the truth?"

"What truth, Jim? Your truth? My truth? Simon's truth?" Sandburg retorted heatedly. "Let's start with Jim's truth. What have you decided is the truth?" A deep blue gaze caught and held light blue eyes that had shifted away the last time he'd tried to talk about this, that terrible day eighteen months before.

Jim felt the rage, which he had pushed away for what had felt like an endless eon of time, shake his body. Damn it, kid, he thought, ruthlessly striving for control as he wheeled away, Leave it alone. If we just ignore ....

But Blair was not prepared to be shut out any longer. He stepped closer as he demanded almost harshly, "What truth, Jim? What? You decided I was a slimeball who didn't give a damn about friendship? Or what, you've decided that I left because I finally realized that you weren't worth the price I paid?"

Ellison straightened up and turned to glare at his erstwhile partner. Even after all the time that had passed, even after a parting that had been anything but amicable, Sandburg still shrugged off the look that could freeze hardened criminals in their tracks.

"I left, Jim, for the reason I told you. Remember?" Blair continued, his tone blistering. "I wouldn't have been the partner you needed. In fact, I was the worst partner you could have had at that time. After that media circus and my Press Conference, I thought IA, the media, hell, every cop outside MCU would have been watching us like hawks, looking for the least little mistake to can my ass - and wondering just why the hell you still put up with me. But worse, I wouldn't have been able to give you the support you need. If I'd done my usual thing of following you around instead of following procedure, I would have been tossed on my ear in no time. It would have been a no-win situation - worse, it would have been a lose-lose situation. You would have lost your guide and any hope of people buying my press conference. The media would have hounded you, man. And I... I would have lost everything all over again, including the one chance that Eli arranged for me to maybe still do something with my life."

"So you say," Ellison snapped. "But you never gave it a try, so how can we ever really know? Simon would have been the one to write your evaluations, Sandburg, not IA or the other cops. And I know he wouldn't do you dirt. Hell, like Joel said earlier, turns out you're a hero downtown. Nobody would have been watching to catch you screwing up. And the fact remains that you did leave. I thought it was supposed to be 'about friendship', but you left before we could find out if it would have worked."

"Where to start?" Blair mumbled, frustrated. Then, he looked up at Ellison and said with strained patience, "Jim, I left Cascade, but I wrote and called and e-mailed. You were the one who wouldn't answer. What, I can only be your friend if I trail around on your heels? Jim, friendship isn't a matter of geography; it's a matter of heart. As for Simon writing my evaluations... he went out on a limb for us - for me - so many times. How could I expect him to keep protecting me, us, when there was no fucking way I could do a cop's job and give you the backup you needed? It's not like nobody would have noticed, and I still believe people would have been watching us like hawks. Gone, I may have become a martyr to a greater cause, but if I'd stayed, I would have still been the guy who used and betrayed you and lied about it. If Simon tried to keep protecting us then, well, it would have impacted on his own credibility in the department."

Jim sighed and shrugged. "I guess we'll never know, will we? We never tried it."

"Jim... how does a cop provide backup? What does he do?" Sandburg tried again, needing Jim to understand, to not keep believing that it was all just a massive excuse to walk away.

Ellison scrubbed his face with his hands, stalling for time. What the hell does he want from me? he wondered, feeling infinitely weary. "He watches his partner's back," he grated.

"How does he watch his partner's back, Jim? Does Henry stare at Rafe's tailored Armani while they're on a bust? Does Joel keep an eye on Megan's pink dingo coat? No, they watch what is happening around their partner. Looking in the directions their partners aren't. That's not how a guide backs up a sentinel, Jim. Yeah, there is a reason why I wouldn't have been a good cop while I was being a good guide. And a lot of that was because of the way I'm made. Not your fault... not even really my fault. It took a year of research to pin down what I did when I backed you up before I was ever offered the chance to be some kind of official backup." A faint smile graced Sandburg's face as he realized that he was babbling.

But he was heartened to see the glimmer of a response from his old friend. He took a breath and slowed down, sure now that he finally had the sentinel's attention.

"Jim, I know now how to teach what I did to others who are working with people with enhanced senses; stuff I used to do intuitively, like I basically intuitively knew that being a cop wouldn't work," Blair went on cajolingly. "Some of these people have multiple senses and were well on their way to being committed. A few were committed."

"So, there really are others... like me?" Jim replied softly, looking away as he recalled what he'd heard that afternoon. Why would Sandburg want to be a cop and give up everything else, including the chance to work with other sentinels? But, deeper down, he remembered all too well how... naked, how... alone... he had felt when the media had descended on the 'freak'. He'd realized then and finally admitted, if only to himself, that that aloneness had been part of the reason Alex had gotten to him.

"Man, no one is quite like you," Sandburg replied with a tentative grin. "But, yeah, there are people out there with multiple heightened senses that were driving them crazy and nobody had a clue what to do to help them. Like I said to Simon earlier, they might have believed my public assertion that you aren't a sentinel, but they weren't prepared to believe that I didn't know something about what was happening to them. They were too desperate not to clasp onto any shred of hope. You wouldn't believe the number of letters and calls I got, begging for help. I... well, I'm glad to be able to help them."

Staring into space, Jim felt his throat thicken at the tentative, once familiar teasing note in Blair's voice. There had been a noticeable absence of that in the weeks, even months before Blair had walked away. Until he'd watched Blair in action that afternoon, Ellison had been sure that he had finally managed to kill the exuberance that had been so much a part of his friend's personality. After the fountain and the terrible time in Mexico, he had tried so hard not to demand anything else of his friend, had given him his space, only to drive him away until the kid wouldn't even consider becoming his official partner. But listening to the kid, to Doctor Sandburg, it almost sounded as if what Jim had thought was the problem, wasn't. In fact, it sounded as if Blair had an explanation that didn't involve Sandburg no longer trusting the Sentinel who had let down his Guide, the Detective who couldn't work with his partner, or the friend who had let his friend be known as a fraud just so he wasn't called a freak.

A hand gently gripped his arm, drawing him out of his abstraction, and he looked down into warm blue eyes.

"Hey, pay attention here, man. I'm gonna lay the answer on you, and without explaining the research I spent months on. Although you'd probably get a kick out the fact that I was the lab rat this time."

And Jim gazed in amazed wonder as Blair grinned at him with all his old warmth. He never thought he'd ever see that again - that glow... that light - not directed at him, anyway.

"All I have to point out is that when I backed you up, when I was your guide, I was 'watching your back' - literally," Blair continued with a good measure of his old enthusiasm. "I was watching you, Jim, not the surroundings. When I happened to notice something out of place, it wasn't because I was looking. I was focused on you. But, at the Academy, they would have taught me to watch the surroundings, to be as alert as you were to what was going on around us, like I'd ever be able to pick up something you couldn't. And, if I performed as a real cop, Jim, I would not be watching you. Focus, Jim. That's what we would have lost if I became a cop. My duties as a cop would have interfered with my duties as your Guide. And, I'll admit it, I don't doubt that a lot time I would have been on the streets, I would have been even more distracted - praying that I wouldn't have to pull my gun, wouldn't have to shoot someone, maybe kill them."

"I wouldn't have let -"

"You would have tried to take the shot for me, Jim. But that would have just made me more of a distraction for you," Blair sighed as he dragged his hair back from his brow. "If I was carrying a badge, you shouldn't have to try to protect me from my duty. But we're into the territory of what-ifs and might-have-beens. The point is I couldn't have been both a cop, doing a cop's job properly, and your guide. Can you see that now?"

Jim said softly, wearily, as he wished he'd been able to understand when Blair had made similar points before he left, and couldn't quite yet believe it was the whole story, "I don't know, yes, I guess. Makes sense and you say you've got research to back it up." He saw Blair's eyes darken at his words and knew that, somehow, he'd blundered again. Wiping a hand over his mouth, he said awkwardly. "It's not that I don't believe what you're saying. I do. It's just that, well, I don't think that's the only reason you left, I guess. You were pretty angry that day... about a lot of things."

Sandburg looked at him steadily and then nodded slowly. "You're right. I was," he admitted soberly. Looking away, toward the door of his old room, he went on reflectively, "But I'm not sure now is the best time to get into all that. It's late, we're both tired and you've got to be up early to check things out at Rainier. Maybe... maybe we should just take this a step at a time, okay?"

His gaze narrowing as he studied the younger man, Jim nodded. Hell, he was just glad that there actually might be some hope that they'd find a way to heal the wounds between them. "You'll stay here tonight?"

"Yeah," Blair acquiesced as he turned away to make up the bed. "I'll stay tonight." But he was surprised to find that the bed was already made, and disconcerted to discover that there were candles on the desk and incense, as well as photos on the wall of their fishing trips. It was almost as if the room was ready and waiting for him to return. There was even a warm blanket folded on the foot of the bed.

"Good night, Chief," Jim called as he headed upstairs.

"Good night, Jim," he murmured softly around the lump in his throat.

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

The next morning, Ellison felt a sharp pang of regret to know he'd once taken it all so much for granted when Sandburg staggered out of his room, his hair a tangle of curls, unshaven and with sleep still blurring his eyes - having someone close, who made his life rich and warm, who really cared about him and who brightened his life with humor and challenge. God, he'd missed the kid more than words could ever begin to express.

"You sleep alright?" he asked uncertainly, not wanting to risk their fragile peace, as he lifted a mug of coffee to his lips.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. Fine," Blair mumbled as he scrubbed at his face, but he gave the older man a quizzical look of reluctant humor. If anyone knew he'd tossed and turned most of the night, it was the guy with the enhanced senses gazing at him with an expression of tender, if somewhat comical, worry. Man, he'd missed that care and concern; missed having someone in his life who wished for something so simple as that he'd had a good night's sleep. "What time is it?"

"Nearly eight," Jim replied. "Look, I know you don't want to go to Rainier with me. But is there anything that you really have to do this morning?"

"No," Sandburg replied, a trifle warily, wondering uneasily if Ellison was going to try to pressure him to go with him to the university.

"Okay, then why don't you just, uh, relax around here," Jim suggested tentatively. "Nobody will look for you here and I'll know you're safe. Go back to bed for a while, and later, you can use the computer upstairs if you get bored and want to go online. We could meet downtown just before noon; maybe have lunch after I brief you and Simon on what I find out."

A slow smile curved over Blair's lips and he nodded. "Okay, sounds like a plan. Thanks, Jim."

They gazed at one another for a moment of mixed comfort and uncertainty, both of them unclear on just what Sandburg was thanking Ellison for. But Jim blinked and nodded, ducking his head as he rinsed out his cup, turned to put his coat on and took off, calling, "See you later, Chief," over his shoulder as he went.

"Chief," Blair echoed softly, savoring the word, his heart twisting at how very much he'd missed the familiar appellation. Swallowing, he looked around the loft, a wistful expression on his face. And then he ambled back to bed for a couple more hours of rest.

When he finally got up and made the bed nearly three hours later, he felt sluggish and grubby. He considered having a shower, but really wanted to change his clothes before appearing again at the PD. Glancing at the clock, he saw he had time to get back to the hotel, clean up and change before meeting Jim downtown. For a moment, he hesitated, thinking about what Ellison would say about going anywhere near the hotel, but he figured if he took a cab to the door, went upstairs alone and took a cab to the PD, he could claim to have taken all due precautions. After all, the killer didn't actually break down doors to get to her victims and, bottom line, he really didn't believe he was in any real danger. It was just Jim, being as overly protective as he'd always been when... when they'd been partners and friends.

Less than twenty minutes later, the desk clerk nodded when he asked if he had any messages, and retrieved a small envelope from the wooden slot designated for his room. Unaware that he was being watched from a chair sheltered behind some ferns in the large lobby, Blair took it with a smile and then went to the elevators, opening the missive as the conveyance ascended. Smiling bemusedly, he shook his head. Well, there wasn't much he could do about it except be as quick as possible and get downtown as soon as he could. Letting himself into his room, he closed and double locked the door before calling Simon and then hurried to take a fast shower.

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

Jim had found the morning's enquiries illuminating. It seemed that all the victims had once attended Rainer, and all had left under some cloud before graduating. It took a while to track down faculty members who remembered the five men, as it had been a dozen years or more since they had wandered the university's halls, but he persevered.

Despite their diverse areas of interest and specialization, he began to form a pattern of certain similarities amongst the victims. All had been popular and seen as easygoing, charming young men. No one held memories of bad feelings, only regret that promising students had screwed up in one way or another, most often by trying to cheat the system and find a way to their degree that didn't require the usual grind.

But it wasn't until he was meeting with his last source of information, Dr. Monroe, Chairman of the Business and Economics faculty, that the penny dropped. Nathaniel Monroe met the detective in a comfortable, wood-paneled room that resembled a den more than an office, and he lingered over the cropped photo of Stinson, nodding his head. "I remember Tom," he said with fond regret, "and was very sorry to read of his murder in the paper." Sighing, he handed the photo back to Ellison as he continued, "He wasn't unintelligent, but he was lazy and always looked for shortcuts." Shaking his head, he added with amused reflection, "It was hard to be angry with him, though. He was such a rogue, always cheerful and smiling, engaging. A conman of sorts, I suppose, but a likeable one."

Jim frowned and cocked his head. "What did you say?"

Blinking, amiable but not used to having to repeat himself, Monroe reiterated with more brusqueness, "I said he was a rogue -"

"No, no... you said 'conman'," Jim murmured with a preoccupied air, wondering where he'd heard something similar recently and then the memory clicked in with cold meaning.

You always were a bit of a conman, weren't you?

The woman at Sandburg's presentation the day before; the one who had just returned from Tibet. "That's it," he said tightly, closing his notebook and stuffing it back into his pocket. Standing hurriedly, he nodded and offered a quick, "Thanks, you've helped a lot," to Monroe, who looked startled by his sudden change of demeanor, and a little uncomfortable by the predatory light that suddenly sparked in his eyes.

As he loped to his truck, his mind was going over the few facts he knew for certain and he had to admit that the connections were flimsy. But his gut told him that even if he didn't have enough to make a case, and sure didn't have a motive, he knew who the killer was.

And he knew she was stalking Sandburg.

Jim was comforted by the knowledge that his friend was somewhere safe where she'd never look for him, but nevertheless, he called the loft before he started the ignition. When there was no answer, he looked at his watch and realized that Blair must be on his way downtown.

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

After shaving and showering, Blair dressed quickly and was vigorously drying his hair with a thick towel when he heard a knock on his door. Frowning, he considered not answering it, and then realized it was probably the housekeeping staff. No one else knew what room he was in, not even Jim, though no doubt the detective could easily find out.

Tossing the damp towel back into the bathroom, he combed his hair with his fingers and went to answer the summons. But he was startled to see the author of the sudden invitation to lunch standing in the hall, a bright smile on her face and a picnic basket over one arm.

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

Jim rapped on Simon's door and walked in when Banks looked up from a report and nodded. "I think I may be onto something," Ellison said briskly, "maybe even the killer, but there's a ways to go yet to build the case."

Simon brightened as he approved warmly, "Good work, Detective. What have you got?"

But Jim was looking out at the operation room and then up at the clock, the time very close to noon. "Where's Sandburg?" he muttered. "I thought he'd be here by now."

"Oh, the good doctor called," Banks said with casual dismissiveness. "He got an unexpected invitation to lunch with no way to cancel - guess his friend left a note with no phone number, just saying they'd meet him at the hotel -"

"He went back to the hotel?" Jim exclaimed, not well pleased. "What friend? Did he say?"

"Yeah, I think he did," Simon replied, looking askance at Ellison. "Calm down. He sounded vaguely irritated to be stuck but not worried. Said they'd catch a quick meal in the coffee shop and he'd be here as soon as he could."

"The name, Simon," Jim grated, impatiently.

"Right," the Captain murmured, scratching his cheek as he dredged his memory of the quick call. "Josh or something like that," he finally remembered. Despite the possibility that Sandburg could be a target, he'd not been worried when he'd heard the name, as they knew their killer was a woman.

"Josh?" Jim echoed, reaching for the name of the woman at the conference. And then his gut felt hollow and he gave Simon a stricken look of alarm. "Not 'Josh'. Joce! Short for Jocelyn. Simon, she's the killer! C'mon," he called, lunging toward the door. "We've got to get to the hotel!"

"What!" Banks bellowed as he surged to his feet and grabbed his coat in one motion. "Son of a -" he cursed as he raced after Ellison.

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

"Since I invited you to lunch, I thought I should provide it," she said with a warm smile as she lifted the basket. "Nothing fancy; just some bread, hummus, cheese, fruit, some wine. Can I come in?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," Blair replied, bemused, as he backed to allow her entry. She'd been a pretty girl and had grown into a beautiful woman, lean and tanned from her years in Tibet, and it seemed she found him more attractive than she had back then, when he'd been a skinny, underage kid. Catching a whiff of the delicate perfume and the seductive sway of her hips, he smiled with pleased amusement as he thought, Yep, definitely more interested now.

She moved to the table by the balcony doors and pulled a brightly patterned cloth from the basket. "It's so good to see you again, Blair, and to know you've done so well!" she said brightly, batting her eyelashes at him over her shoulder. "And you've grown some since I knew you when."

"Yeah, well," he shrugged as he closed the door and moved to take the chilled wine bottle from her hand. Finding a corkscrew on the top of the bureau beside the clean glasses, he opened and poured as he went on, "I guess we've all changed - though I have to say, you've only grown more beautiful. It's really great to see you, Joce, and I wish... but, uh, I'm afraid I don't have much time. I have to meet some people - I would have called to postpone, but I didn't know where to reach you."

Something flickered in her eyes - displeasure maybe that he was already making excuses and shortening their reunion - but she smiled again as she took the glass he handed to her and they clinked in salute before drinking. "That's okay," she replied after a modest sip. "I know I didn't give you much warning. Have a seat, sir, and let me pull out the rest of the food."

He sat down and watched her lay out their repast, and he was sorry that he couldn't spend more time with her. But, just before she sat down, she said softly, with a long look into his eyes, "When I was in Tibet, I learned to appreciate a local custom. Nobody knows why they do it, but I think it's sweet." She pulled a small cotton bag from the basket and then struck a pose, bowing to him as she said in the tones of formal welcome, "Tashi Delek, good fortune and good health. May you achieve unchanging happiness and may it ever increase."

He'd thought the slight undertone of irony in her voice was only embarrassment at the quaint but kind words of another culture's ritual, and smiled appreciatively, but when she reached into the sack and threw small kernels of grain roasted in beer into the air, he went very still.

"It's called tsampi," she explained, not noticing how his smile had become stiff. "Tossing it into the air is an expression of good wishes for your own and others' happiness, and the overcoming of all obstacles."

Sitting down, she went on smoothly, "You've certainly overcome some difficult obstacles to get where you are, and so did I - though I didn't have the help of a professor who wangled me a spot in another prestigious school." Laughing with a now clear tone of bitterness, she shrugged. "I had to do it the hard way, all on my own. Men don't help women; they just help other men. No matter what those men did. They can lie, cheat, steal, rape - even admit on national television to being a fraud who betrayed everyone's trust - but commit a little plagiarism in a routine, unimportant essay and, if you're a woman, you're out on your ear."

Blair watched her as he might have watched a King cobra swaying before him. "You sound angry about that," he murmured trying for a low tone of empathy and almost making it, his mouth and throat dry; he sure wished he'd paid more attention to Jim's warnings to stay away from the hotel.

"Well, yes, I am - wouldn't you be?" she went on reasonably, as she sliced the quarter round of cheese with a long, thin blade. "I mean, I had to spend forever in the back of the beyond, studying a culture the world could care less about, and complete my degree in absentia years after it should have been finished. Mind you, it had its interesting moments, and I learned all sorts of esoteric skills, including everything from how to use garlic in a million different ways when cooking or treating illnesses - I swear the smell of it will take the rest of my life to expunge from my belongings and even my skin - to their own arts of defense and combat - sort of similar to tai chi, but with some regional variations. You, on the other hand, already have a plum post at Georgetown U and the world is eating out of your hand. Don't you think it's... unfair?"

"Maybe, sometimes," he murmured, wondering how he was going to get out of this mess. What had seemed a tantalizingly exotic fragrance now felt oppressive, overwhelming. "Uh, that's an unusual scent you're wearing. Very... nice. What is it?

"It's the essence of a flower that's endemic to Tibet," she replied, pleased. "It's called Heracleum nyalamense. Pretty name. Always makes me think of the ancient Grecian Queen of the Gods, Hera, feminine and yet all-powerful." Pushing the loaf of bread and a paper plate of cheese, hummus, grapes and strawberries toward him, she urged, "Eat, Blair. You said you were in a hurry and you never know when you might have another chance."

He blinked at the loaded words and swallowed as he tried to think of how to subdue her, though simply bolting from his room, yelling for help, had its definite attractions as an option - might not be manly to run from a woman, but superior strength alone wasn't necessarily enough. God, he thought, weighing his options and odds, given the number of years she'd been studying in Tibet, if she's any good at those physical arts, she'd be able to kill me with her bare hands; the defensive moves Jim taught me'll never be enough to fend her off.

But she caught his hungry look toward the exit and she licked her lip, her expression hardening. "You don't deserve all your good fortune, you know. It came too easily for the magnitude of your lies," Joce observed, her silken voice now steely, her wide green eyes cold.

The hard tone sharply drew his guarded gaze back to hers, and he reached tentatively for some cheese, knowing he'd choke on the dry bread. "I guess it could look that way," he allowed, in an effort to keep her talking. "I was lucky not to have lost everything, that's for sure. So, uh, tell me more about your time in Tibet. You said it wasn't easy, but it must have been fascinating, too. I mean, I always loved living among other people, getting to know them, their customs and -"

Her lips curved into a softer smile as she interrupted with fond amusement, "You still babble when you're nervous. How endearing. You've not grown all stuffy and superior."

"Uh, well, thanks, I think," he stammered, shifting, intending to rise slowly, moving easily, so as not to alarm her before he ran for the door. But his gaze was drawn irresistibly to the knife in her hand and, seeing his nervous glance, she quirked a brow.

Before he could make it to his feet, she'd risen and stepped quickly between him and the door, and she was close, infringing on his personal space. "I always thought you were cute, you know?" she drawled, taking a step closer. "I'm sorry, I guess, that things couldn't have worked out differently."

Instinctively, he pushed away but the back of his chair banged into the plate glass window of the half-open balcony door. He lifted his hands, an unconscious gesture of defense. "Yeah, well, I always thought you were great," he blurted. "And I'd really like to spend this afternoon with you, you know? But I've got this appointment and I have to leave soon. Maybe... maybe we could arrange to meet later, I mean, if you want to spend more time together."

Her laughter rippled into the room, an obscene sound of ruthless power. "You slay me," she chuckled, not hearing his muttered, "Don't you mean, 'you wanna slay me'?" Taking another step toward him, close enough now to touch, leaning forward she crooned, "Give me a kiss to remember you by while we're apart and I'll be on my way."

He gave a slight shake of his head, knowing if she got that close it would be kiss of death. Oh, God, he thought desperately as he braced himself and then surged upward, reaching to grab her wrist while he tried to reach around with his other arm to subdue her.

She yelled in surprise, fury filling her eyes as she realized that he knew and had been playing with her, ruining her game, her revenge. She twisted away and, though he had succeeded in grabbing her knife arm, she eluded his restraint.

"Don't Joce!" he called out as he tried to get his other arm around her, to overcome her. "Stop!"

"NOOO!" she shrieked, frenzied with her need to be free, to kill. Abruptly, she stopped trying to pull away and, instead, lunged closer to him, her left arm slamming straight into his body, driving him back against the table. The wine bottle teetered and spilled over, and he was breathless from the powerful blow, but brought his left arm up between them to try to block more punches as they were grappled, their limbs entangled as they both wrestled for control of the blade between them. His strength was greater, but her balance and skills exceeded his own - and her madness was unbounded. Blair knew he was in the fight of his life... and desperation surged through him with the fear that he might well lose.

"Joce," he pleaded with her, sorry for her but undeniably scared as he tried to shove her away and get some room to maneuver, "don't do this!"

"I hate you," she spat as she wriggled and stopped on his bare foot, and then bit his shoulder, drawing blood through the fabric.

"Oww!" he exclaimed and, off-balance, jerked backward against the table, and swore under his breath. His grip slipped, and she surged against him as he tried to twist away, and he grunted.

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

Jim heard the voices while still on the elevator, and the scuffling sound of struggle, so he knew Sandburg was in trouble. In a fever of frustration and urgency, he pounded on the closed door with fear and frustration; when it finally got to the floor, he slipped between the opening doors to pound down the corridor, Simon close on his heels. With scarcely a pause for balance, Jim violently kicked the door to the room open, bursting the flimsy lock and nearly battering the wooden barrier from its hinges. "POLICE!" he yelled, his weapon out and leveled. "Get away from him!"

The struggling tableau before him froze and then she pulled away, whispering, "You're too late."

"Too late? Chief!" Jim called out, nearly frantic. "What does she mean? I smell blood."

Abruptly, Jocelyn swung around to face him, her eyes wide with disbelief, the bloody blade hanging limply in her hand, and then she looked back at Blair, her expression one of dawning horror. "He heard... smells ...." Tears blurred her eyes and she shook her head in regret for what she'd done. Blair didn't deserve her judgment upon him; didn't deserve to die like the others had. "It wasn't a lie. You weren't a fraud! Oh, God. What have I done?" she mumbled to herself, appearing distraught and disoriented.

"Drop the knife, Joce," Blair urged, his voice strained and hoarse. "It's over."

Stunned, she let the blade fall away and the two policemen strode swiftly into the room. Jim pushed past her to Blair, his eyes on the widening stain of red blooming on Sandburg's shirt. And then he lifted his stricken gaze to his friend's dark eyes. "Chief?" Simon followed him in, his weapon still leveled at the woman standing on the far side, staring at Sandburg and shaking her head dazedly as she muttered to herself.

Blair tore his eyes from her and shook his head as he looked up at Jim. "You'd think I'd remember," he wheezed through the pain. "You'd think I'd learn to listen to your instincts."

Jim reached to grab him as his eyes rolled up and he crumpled, just as Jocelyn suddenly pushed past them through the open door onto the balcony before Simon had reached to take her arm and cuff her. Ellison caught Sandburg and eased him to the floor, but he looked up through the glass as Simon brushed by them. She didn't stop, but moved with economical precision as she scooted over the balcony even as Simon lunged outside to try to stop her. His questing hand grabbed empty air as she pitched, screaming, to the concrete path through the gardens below. Banks swallowed hard and turned away, his head bowed, and then he straightened, took a deep breath and pushed back inside. He had a man down who needed help.

"How bad is it?" Banks barked as he pulled out his cell phone and stood looking down at Sandburg, who was now supported against Jim's chest and left arm, and apparently unconscious.

"We need an ambulance here, now!" Jim rasped as he pulled Sandburg's shirt from his jeans to examine the wound and found blood pulsing dark and red. "I don't know how bad it is, or how deep, but it's bleeding hard," he grated, his voice strained, as he pressed his palm hard upon the wound. He tightened his grip around Blair's shoulders and looked down upon the curly head resting on his chest. Jim's throat was tight and the breath seemed caught in his chest; seeking balance, he closed his eyes and listened to the steady thump of Sandburg's heart.

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

"What do you mean it's only superficial?" Jim bellowed at the doctor who was suturing up the entry wound, while Blair laid on his back, staring morosely up at the ceiling, his jaw gritted against the pull of the needle; the local anaesthetic made it nearly painless but the idea of having his body stitched up left him feeling nauseous nonetheless. "He lost consciousness and one hell of a lot of blood!"

"The blade skidded along his ribs and the wound is shallow, not at all dangerous, barring infection, of course," the physician replied patiently. "Your friend simply fainted."

"Fainted?" Jim echoed, frowning in disbelief. Sandburg was a lot of things, but swooning wasn't really his style. "You're kidding," he mumbled. "Fainted?"

"Enough, Jim. Do you mind?" Blair gritted with some asperity, no little embarrassment and heavy sarcasm. "So I passed out. Big deal. I'm a little out of practice, you know. Nobody's tried to kill me for almost two years now. Guess the excitement of it all sort of overwhelmed me for a minute or so. Let's not belabor it, okay?"

A slight smile playing around his mouth, Jim nodded as he lifted a hand to lay it on Sandburg's head. "Okay, Chief," he murmured. "S'long as you're all right. That's all that matters."

Caught by the slight tremor in the warm tone, Sandburg looked up at Ellison, and swallowed at the expression on the older man's face and in his eyes. Such abject relief and yet hesitancy, as if Jim was afraid his touch would be rejected, his very presence unwanted. Blair blinked, wondering if he was imagining the emotions he was reading. For the first time since he'd left so long before, he began to truly wonder if his belief that Jim honestly despised him, and wanted no more to do with him, was correct. But the prolonged silence since he'd left, the briskness the one time he'd called, and the fact that Jim had never told him he could have easily come back to the PD had convinced him he was right. Now, confused, his gaze flickered away briefly, but swiftly returned to Jim's when he felt Ellison's hand begin to lift away. "Thanks," he murmured, and then smiled up at the person he loved best in the world; daring to hope that, maybe, deep down Jim didn't hate and resent him after all.

The Emergency Room doctor finished the stitching and applied a dressing. The pint bag that had contained the blood he'd ordered was hanging empty on the far side of the examination table, and he reached to remove the needle from the back of Sandburg's hand, pressing briefly before applying a small bandage. "All right," he said cheerfully, "we're finished here and the dressing is water-tight. But no showers for a day or two, because I don't want you getting dizzy and falling. The sutures will dissolve in a week or so. I'll leave a prescription at the desk for some antibiotics. You're free to go."

"Thanks, Doctor," Blair said, and sat up, too quickly, leaving him suddenly lightheaded and wobbly.

"Whoa, slow down, Chief," Jim cautioned as he put out a supportive hand. "There's no rush. Take your time."

"Listen to your friend," the physician counseled with a smile as he took his leave.

Jim quirked a brow and shot Sandburg a superior smile, while Blair sighed and nodded. "Seems like the message of the day," he muttered as he grimaced at having to pull on a shirt stiff with his dried blood. But he was grateful for Jim's firm grip as he eased himself off the table. He did feel woozy. "Fainted," he grunted, shaking his head with self-mockery and disgust. "The sudden shock of pain and loss of blood may have caused a temporary loss of consciousness, but I did not faint. Passed out, is all. There's a difference, you know."

"Whatever you say, Sandburg," Jim allowed cheerfully. "C'mon. Simon's gone back to your hotel to pick up your stuff and he'll meet us at the loft. Let's get you home where you can rest."

Blair pulled up short, his muscles tensing. "Wait a minute," he protested. "I don't need a babysitter, Jim. I'll be fine at the hotel. You don't have to -"

"Maybe not, but I want to," Ellison interrupted, the troubled look of feared rejection once again shadowing his eyes. "I mean, unless you really don't want to -"

"No, no, that's okay," Blair hastened to reassure. "I mean, it's nice of you...."

"Well, you said there was more we needed to talk about, research you wanted to show me," Jim offered as a rationale. "And you heard the doctor. You could get dizzy or something, and fall on your face. You shouldn't be alone for a day or so, or well, we'll see."

"True, true," Sandburg nodded, leaning a little into Jim's support as he gave way to the weariness that assailed him. "It would make it easier to, uh, go over all that stuff if I was, um, staying at your place."

As Ellison helped him down the corridor toward the entrance and the truck parked illegally by the door, he corrected very quietly, "Our place, Chief. Even if you live somewhere else right now, the loft's always been your home, too."

Blair bowed his head and stared at the floor, not trusting himself to speak.

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

Once again, Sandburg was silent during the trip to the loft, though this time the air between them didn't crackle with tension so much as yearned for what had once been. Jim was still feeling shaky himself, though he was assured the kid would be all right; but those moments in the hotel room, when he'd imagined that Blair might have been fatally stabbed, haunted him, as did his nearly frenzied race to reach his partner before it was too late. Because, finally, irrevocably, he'd understood in the rush of fear and need that Sandburg was his partner, whether they ever worked together again or not. He felt a sense of inexpressible urgency, to not waste any more time in misunderstanding, the comforting illusion of self-deception or pointless, unnecessary confrontation. The last eighteen months stretched behind him like a desert; a wasteland, empty and joyless, while beside him sat the man who meant so very much, more than anyone else in his life ever had. Biting his lip, he struggled with the selfishness of wanting Blair back when the kid was so much better off in D.C. But the desire for reconciliation ached within him and he was determined to find a way to make things right between them, once and for all.

Blair, for his part, was lost in memories of their last months, weeks and days together; he was trying to reframe the haunting emotions that still lingered, of hurt and a visceral sense of absolute rejection, with what he'd learned intellectually over the period of their separation, and Jim's confusing and inconsistent mix of resentment and concern over the last two days.

Notwithstanding all that he'd discovered, Jim's continued silence had led him to be certain that his Sentinel and his friend wanted nothing more to do with him. But what if he'd been wrong? What if Jim's behaviors then and since weren't motivated by a profound lack of personal trust and deliberate rejection but something else... something more atavistic and inherent in their natures, as he was beginning to suspect? Was there a chance to come home again, despite the words of countless poems and songs that suggested it was ever an impossibility? Could he somehow fix what had gone so wrong between them so that there was hope for more than the alienation and abject loneliness of the last endless months? Did he dare try, and risk it all happening all over again the next time trouble erupted and the world collapsed around them? How could he not at least try to reach out once more for the only brass ring he'd ever coveted?

By the time they got to the loft, Simon was there with Sandburg's bags and laptop, for which both Jim and Blair were grateful, as it meant he could get out of the filthy, smelly shirt.

"Maybe you should just crash for a while, Chief," Jim suggested solicitously, worried about Blair's pallor and residual dizziness.

"Nah, I'll be fine - not much different than giving a pint of blood when you think about it," the younger man replied with a shrug, and then a wince. "Uh, accept you don't normally have stitches," he added ruefully, but he gave a ghost of the old grin to both Ellison and Banks before disappearing into his room.

"Simon, thanks for bringing his stuff over," Ellison acknowledged then as he looked at his watch. "Nearly quitting time - got time to stay for a coffee or a beer? Maybe an early dinner? None of us had time for any lunch."

Simon scratched his cheek as he gazed thoughtfully at Ellison and then speculatively at the closed French doors. "Sure, why not?" he replied evenly. "A beer would be good." When Ellison filled the kettle and set it on the stove, and then bent to pull two bottles from the fridge, Banks added quietly, "You nervous about being alone with the kid, or something?"

Ellison jerked upright and swiftly turned, about to deny any such thing, but then he shrugged uncertainly as he handed Simon his bottle. "Not nervous, exactly; everything was fine last night but...."

"But what?" Banks prodded gently as he removed the cap and took a swallow.

Jim rubbed the back of his neck as he looked toward the closed doors. "I want him to stay," he finally blurted, keeping his voice low so Sandburg wouldn't hear what they were saying. "But I don't... he's got his own life now. A good life."

"Maybe you should let him decide what life he wants to live, Jim," Simon replied with a sigh. "But he can't decide anything if you don't tell him what you'd prefer."

Ellison looked down and nodded. Grimacing, he admitted hoarsely, "I get so... angry. I don't really know why, but it seems every time we try to talk about this, I lose it."

"Well, maybe you need to figure out why that happens," Banks returned soberly. "And soon, before he leaves again; because I think if he goes this time without the problems sorted out between the two of you, you won't get another chance."

Jim swallowed hard and nodded. Before anything more could be said, Sandburg emerged from his room in a clean pair of jeans and a loose blue t-shirt, a thick folder of papers in one hand. "Thanks for bringing my gear over, Simon," he said, looking a little more steady on his feet.

Banks shrugged as he replied sardonically, "Well, you helped us break the case, Blair, if in a peculiarly spectacular fashion. Seems little enough help to give you in return."

Jim turned to fill a teapot with the boiling water from the kettle as Sandburg asked with a rueful expression, "Uh, I was kinda out of it so I don't know what happened after... well, after Joce tried to skewer me. She's really pretty crazy - she didn't exactly admit killing those other guys, but I think she told me why. Basically, she was furious that guys seem to get more help from the system when they screw up than women do. It wasn't easy for her to pick up her life and get her degree after she was caught plagiarizing, a smaller crime in her view than what we'd all done. And yet, our lives went on and we achieved success a lot faster. It's, well, she definitely needs help and she'll likely get off on an insanity plea."

"Blair, Jocelyn is dead," Simon replied heavily.

"What?" Blair gaped and then wheeled to Jim, who was pouring a mug of tea. "You didn't. Tell me you didn't...."

"Sandburg, I don't know what you think Jim may have done, but he was too busy taking care of you to do anything else," Simon supplied when Ellison looked up, surprised by Blair's reaction. "She jumped over the balcony before I could stop her, and while Jim was kneeling beside you."

"Oh." Blair grimaced and shook his head. "It's too bad," he murmured.

"Chief, why don't you sit down before you fall down," Jim counseled with a sigh. "She did what she did. She might have been crazy, but she killed five innocent men and was trying to kill you." When Blair slowly moved to settle on the couch, Ellison continued as he carried over the mug and his beer. "Why did you think I'd killed her?" he asked when Blair took the tea and sniffed it, surprise in his eyes when he realized it was one of his herbal favorites that Jim had to've deliberately restocked - because Sandburg knew he had intentionally and carefully cleared out his supplies when he left - but he'd never known Jim to drink it.

Simon settled on the love seat, leaning forward, interested in the answer. Ellison had his moments, but if anyone knew he wasn't a reflexive killer, it was Sandburg.

"Well," Blair replied slowly after taking a grateful sip and then settling back against the sofa, "I've been learning some interesting stuff about sentinels, and I wanted to share the information with you." He waved to the file he'd put on the coffee table. "I was about to send it to you when this conference came up and, well, I brought it along. Figured I could, um, courier it to the station."

"Uh, maybe I should be going," Simon offered.

"No," both men replied simultaneously, then gave one another a startled look.

"I think you should hear this, too, Simon," Blair clarified first. "Jim needs someone he trusts to understand this stuff because it has implications for his behaviors at work."

"Uh, yeah," Ellison agreed to the handy rationale, though what he wanted was more in the line of moral support.

When Simon settled back in his seat, Blair went on, "Like I've told both of you, I've been working with a lot of proto-sentinels, so I've been able to theorize more on generalized characteristics and behaviors than I could when I was only working with one, uh, you. Basically, I'm finding a lot of similarities that suggest there are certain traits or behavior patterns that are predictable and probably genetic but I don't have that proof yet, and don't know if there is a way of getting it."

"Would you just cut to the chase, Chief," Jim urged a little impatiently.

Nodding, Blair sipped the tea and then continued. "Okay, take trust for example. I've observed that sentinels have an innate wariness so that trust is extremely difficult for them to develop. Makes sense when you realize they are responsible for protecting their tribes from possible threats. Anyway, trust develops along a continuum. Those people the sentinel comes to know well, and respects, will be trusted for the most part. Sort of like Jim trusts you, Simon, and the others in MCU. But if anyone abrogates that trust, then it is withdrawn summarily, and if it can be recovered at all, it's by incremental degrees." Turning to Jim, he added, "Your relationship with your father and brother would be examples."

"Blair, everyone has trust issues," Simon murmured, not sure sentinels were any different in that respect from anyone else.

"Yeah, I know, but for sentinels, it's exaggerated, and more black and white. It's more instinctive than individual," Sandburg replied. "For example, Jim may defer to hierarchical authority because it's necessary, not because he necessarily respects the people in the chain of command. And, if he decides that their directions are suspect or inappropriate to the welfare of the tribe, he'll act independently, maybe appearing to be self-righteous or a lone wolf. Right? Okay, well, that's not something he can really control because the impetus to protect the tribe is a hardwired imperative for him. Remember how he lost it over the Junos, and you and everyone else thought he was way out of line? Well, he was, in terms of basic procedure, but he wasn't in terms of his drive to protect. Same thing with his reluctance to accept a partner - because a partner might slow him down when he has to act quickly to safeguard those in his charge. It's irresistible, Simon. And you need to know that, so you don't think he's being willfully disrespectful or something, or doesn't trust your leadership. He does. But his imperative overrides even that personal respect when the tribe is threatened."

"You make me sound like a robot or something," Ellison grated. "Like I'm out of control."

"No, it's not a control issue - you don't 'lose' control. You don't go out and summarily execute the bad guy, you - Jim - act within the general parameters and tenets of the law you've sworn to uphold. A primal sentinel would just terminate the threat, pure and simple," Blair replied patiently. "And it's not like we aren't all governed by our genetic propensities, sometimes in really startling ways. Have you ever seen the studies on identical twins that are raised apart? They have the same favorite color, buy the same clothes, will get the same sort of job, marry similar women who look alike, often with the same name, often on the same day; will have the same number of children at the same time, and name them the same names. It's a bit weird, actually, even a little spooky, but the impact our genetic inheritance has upon us, all of us, is undeniable."

"Okay," Simon allowed thoughtfully. "But that doesn't explain why you thought he might have suddenly lost it and killed that woman for harming you - it was because she hurt you, I'm assuming, that you figured he might have taken a revenge of sorts?"

"Yeah," Blair sighed and bit his lip as he tried to figure out how to explain what he suspected neither of them particularly wanted to hear, because it did go to the issue of control. "A sentinel who is without adequate support for a long period of time can get into trouble. It takes a huge amount of energy to manage their senses on their own, and leaves them hovering on the verge of exhaustion. They need guides, to help manage the senses, so they can focus on protecting the tribe. Left alone too long, their behaviors can become extreme. And, well, there is always an imperative within the sentinel to protect their guide. I, uh, haven't been Jim's guide for a long time now, but I was the last one he had. So when I was threatened, if Jim was exhausted to the point where his personal controls had eroded, he could have acted arbitrarily. I'm glad that didn't happen. Very glad. When Incacha was killed, though, we saw some similar sorts of reactions - Incacha was Jim's first guide, and after his murder, Jim sorta lost it, albeit briefly. Even when Incacha was under threat before he was killed, Jim was nearly overwhelmed by his need to find the man and help him. Instinct can override judgment in these situations."

Turning to Jim, he added, "We have to find you a new guide. You can't keep trying to do this alone."

Jim stiffened, and his gut clenched in sharp rejection of the idea, and in sorrow as he interpreted Sandburg's statement to mean that he had no intention of ever resuming that role, but before Ellison could respond, Banks asked, "Can anyone be trained to be a guide?"

"Yes and no," Blair replied evenly. "The basics can be taught, but I've found that there is something going on between a sentinel and guide that suggests some kind of recognition or natural affinity exists when the match is right, but whether it has something to do with tone of voice or quality of touch or scent, I don't know - I just know that some of my protosentinels work much better, and spontaneously affiliate, with one particular person than with others."

"Sort of the way you and Jim worked together so well, right from the beginning," Banks mused, carefully trying to help lead the conversation in the direction he knew Ellison wanted it to go. "And none of the rest of us can do as well whatever it was that you did."

Blair nodded, though his gaze fell away. Taking a breath, he elaborated, "I think... I think the sentinel in Jim trusted me because of that affinity, yes. And so he went along with all the tests and crazy ideas - and some of them were crazy because I didn't have a clue about what I was doing most of the time, just going on instinct - but I think Jim the detective, had trouble trusting someone so wet behind the ears, who didn't have the first clue or any skills related to police work. It says a lot about the genetic compulsion sentinels have to trust their guides that he... put up with me as long as he did."

"It wasn't a matter of putting up with you," Ellison protested.

Turning to face him, Blair licked his lips and then went on, striving to keep an academic, impersonal tone. "Okay, maybe that was the wrong choice of words," he allowed. "The erosion of our friendship also had something to do, I think, with the innate relationship between sentinels and guides. I mentioned earlier that trust is difficult for a sentinel, but that the sentinel inherently trusts their guide. However, if the guide fails in their role to support the sentinel, then the reaction can be as swift and as irrevocable as with any others who have lost faith. Even more exaggerated than that because the perceived betrayal is so unexpected as to be nearly inconceivable. When you sensed that I had betrayed you over Alex, you acted very quickly to get me out of your personal space. Jim, the friend Jim, tried to get past it, but the sentinel Jim was having a really hard time with it all. We never really healed that breach. And the dissertation fiasco just convinced the sentinel that this particular guide was more trouble than he was worth, so you told me it had to end. But the friend Jim, retracted that later. It was a really hard time for you, man. Really hard. For so very many reasons. I'm sorry I didn't have a better understanding then of what was happening."

"How could you know?" Jim asked with a sigh as he scrubbed his face and struggled to understand and accept what Sandburg was telling them; certainly it helped to explain the confusion and incredible pain he'd felt, and what he looked back upon and saw as irrational behaviors. "We were both flying blind. You did a great job just acting from instinct."

Blair smiled softly, wistfully, but his gaze fell away. Simon shifted in the silence as he watched them, and tightly shook his head. It seemed perfectly obvious to him that these two men longed to restore their relationship, with all its complexities, but neither one was willing to push the other, fearing that they might be asking too much. Clearing his throat, he jumped back into the conversation. "Blair, you've mentioned this 'acting on instinct' a couple of times. Are guides as genetically determined as sentinels?"

"Yeah, I think so," Sandburg replied, turning his attention away from Jim, grateful to be able to again seek refuge in the research findings and his intellectual analysis of the information. "Guides don't work equally well with all sentinels, but they do seem to be able to instinctively help any sentinel with the basics of managing their senses." With a quick, almost nervous, glance at Ellison, he carried on, "So, I was able to coach Alex to some extent, but could never have been her guide. Even when I first met her, much as I wanted to help someone who was suffering, I felt no personal attachment to her, no desire to, I don't know, align with her. She, uh, came onto me a couple of times, and she was a beautiful woman, which would normally be enough for me, but there was nothing there. In fact, there was almost an aversion to having anything more than a professional relationship with her." He paused and then added thoughtfully, "Though, in part, that might have been because she wasn't really a sentinel. But it was more that I was already committed to my sentinel."

"What do you mean she wasn't a sentinel?" Jim asked puzzled. "She had five enhanced senses, right?"

"Yes, but it's more than senses that make a sentinel," Blair explained. "I've found a couple of others like her in criminal institutions, so I've been able to determine substantial differences between them and the protosentinels."

A violent surge of protectiveness flooded Jim and he stiffened as he growled, "I don't want you anywhere near people like that, you hear me?"

"Chill, big guy," Sandburg replied, but he smiled and felt warmed by the reaction. "They're locked up, and for good reason. Those who don't have the sentinel drive to protect, but do have the senses, become predators. It's kind of like 'sentinel' equals 'affiliation with tribe' and 'protectiveness'. Sentinels are, by nature, drawn to roles like law enforcement, the military, search and rescue, sometimes medicine or the ambulance service, jobs like that. Jobs where they can help people, stand between their tribe and what threatens. A 'predator' on the other hand, equals 'alienation' and 'dominance'. They don't seem to have the capacity to form personal relationships other than for their own purposes, and they seek power and anything else they want without scruple. I suspect, in the past, we knew them as marauders or warlords who subjugated anyone and everyone they could, and they would have been the sentinels' most dangerous enemies. "

"So, uh, Blair," Simon asked, manfully trying to get the conversation back on the right track, though he knew he was treading dangerous ground and might get an answer neither he nor Jim wanted to hear, "you're working with a lot of these, what do you call them, protosentinels, now, right? So, if you have the innate instincts of a guide, have you begun 'guiding' another sentinel? I mean, have you committed to another sentinel?"

Blair swallowed as he crossed his arms. Physically turning away from Jim to Simon, he murmured, "No. I... uh, no, I haven't."

"Why not? Isn't there some sort of primal urge here to link with a sentinel? Or doesn't it work that way?" Banks pushed.

Sandburg's gaze flitted around the room as if he were looking for some avenue of escape, but there was none. Finally, he spoke quietly with as much dignity as he could muster into the tense silence, "I have a sentinel. I... don't want to have a guide relationship with anyone but Jim. I don't... I don't know if I could have such a relationship even if I tried." Taking a breath, he scuttled back to his research for shelter, as he hurried on, "In studying other sentinel/guide pairings, I've noticed that there seems to be a kind of bond that forms, an affiliation even stronger than, say, marriage. It's... pretty profound, anyway. Basically, once that affiliation or bond is created, a guide won't, maybe can't, certainly doesn't seem to want to, abrogate it."

"But you left," Jim accused, confused and still hurting with that reality.

"You told me to go," Blair replied, his voice hollow, his face still turned away, but bowed down and hidden by his hair. "We'd been increasingly alienated for months, probably because of Alex and with no way to heal those wounds. And the rest... the rest of what happened was too much. I understand it all better now than I did, because back then I couldn't understand why you were so quick to doubt me and still wanted me to go even after you knew I hadn't willfully betrayed you. But... that's the thing with sentinels. Once the trust is gone, it's gone."

"I told you I wanted you to stay," Ellison insisted. "But that didn't seem to make any difference."

"You wanted me to stay as a cop," Sandburg replied tightly. "But I explained then and again last night why that wouldn't have worked." Looking up and seeing Simon's confusion, he clarified, "A guide's role is different from the role of a badge-carrying partner. I... I need to be backing Jim up, focused on him, not the environment around us - that's his job. Anyway, being a cop wasn't the right way to support him. It would have only caused problems, not to mention my own inherent lack of personal credibility at the time, or so I assumed, to be successful in that role."

"When you found all this out, why didn't you come back and tell me?" Ellison demanded, frustrated that Blair seemed to have all the answers, but hadn't done anything with them.

"You told me never to come back," Sandburg replied, his voice tight with strain. Finally looking up at Jim, he rushed on, "I tried, man. I tried. I wrote you several times, every couple of weeks for a long time, and I even called. But you never answered any of my letters or emails. You said you were doing just fine on the phone. What was I supposed to do? Force myself on a sentinel who didn't want me around any more? And... and then I find out the whole credibility thing really wasn't a problem, but you never told me I could come back and that it might actually work; maybe not as a cop, but maybe as some kind of consultant." His shoulders slumping he flicked a look at Simon, as he muttered, "I didn't have the credentials for that, though, when I left - certainly not before I got my PhD and maybe not even then. Anyway," he sighed, "I more or less gave up trying. I still sent Christmas and birthday cards but... well... I never heard from you."

"Hold on a minute, Chief," Ellison protested. "It's not that easy. When you left, you were pretty fed up with me. I wasn't the only one shouting that day. You said I'd betrayed our friendship and that you didn't need a 'fair weather friend' who used you when it was convenient. You said 'you had to go' or we'd destroy ourselves."

Nodding, Sandburg replied softly, "I was angry. And I was hurt. I did feel those things. But when I learned more about sentinels, it helped me understand what had happened to us. That it wasn't personal, sort of. It wasn't that you didn't trust me, Blair, but that the sentinel had lost faith in his guide. And, well, when I looked at things from that perspective, I could understand why. But the research is also pretty clear that once that trust is gone... it's gone." His voice cracked and he had to stop and swallow to regain control. "I've wanted to come back for a long time now," he said hoarsely, pain resonating in his voice. "Part of me never wanted to go."

"You could come back anytime - I heard Jack offer you a position at Rainier," Jim replied, sick with the fact that it did, indeed, seem to be his fault, however unintended, that Sandburg had never returned. But all the signals had been that Blair didn't want to come back. "You told him there was nothing here for you. You said the same thing when you left."

"I couldn't be the guide you wanted and needed when I left. I couldn't be anything here when I left. I was a wreck, frankly," Blair retorted. "As for Jack's offer, yes, there's a job for me here now. But you're here. You told me not to come back. I guess I was fixated on that. And there was no way I could make you want me back. No way I could make you trust me again. I'd thought, hoped, when I left that we could at least be friends, but when you never responded...." He looked up at Jim, his chest tight and desperate hope in his eyes given their conversation the evening before and all the little signs since that Jim might have actually wanted him to come home, and asked plaintively, "Why didn't you ever answer? Why didn't you let me know that I could come back?"

Jim stared into those eyes, and shook his head sorrowfully as his gaze dropped away. "Because I thought you were better off without me," he said with heavy regret. "It sounded as if you'd found what you were looking for, and had gotten your own dreams back." He paused and then added, "Because you were safe, where you were."

"Ah, Jim," Sandburg moaned softly as he raked his fingers through his hair. "You were just trying to protect me?"

Ellison felt compelled to give the whole truth, but still hesitated to reveal his own vulnerabilities. It hadn't been as purely selfless or altruistic as all that. He cast a weary, wry look at Simon, wondering what his boss was making of all this baring of souls, but Banks had settled against the love seat and was nursing his beer, giving them space but ready to help further a happy ending if he could. Banks was watching him, and one brow quirked knowingly. Sighing, Ellison leaned forward, his hands clasped between his knees. "That was part of it, but not all of it," he admitted slowly. "I... I was angry that you left. And... I guessed I couldn't imagine why you'd ever want to come back, even if you could. I didn't have anything to offer. Couldn't figure out why you'd hung around as long as you had in the first place, to tell you the truth."

Blair threw his hands up in the air and shook his head. "Nothing to offer?" he exclaimed. "God, Jim, you're the best friend I ever had. You don't have to offer anything beyond that, if that's all you want now. I didn't think you even wanted that much from me any more." Shaking his head, he went on, "Jim, man, for a guy with enhanced senses you sure do miss the obvious. I 'hung around' not just 'cause I was your friend; hell, man, you're the brother Naomi never got around to giving me. You gave me a home. Gave me back my life on an occasion or two. And you're my sentinel. Man, I only left because I really didn't think you wanted me around, and staying the way things were really would have destroyed whatever friendship we had left. And then we had that rotten fight, and you accused me of worrying more about my reputation than about you, and not caring enough that it was supposed to about friendship and well, yeah, I lost it. Because I figured you should have known by then, after all that had happened, that you mattered a whole more to me than my reputation ever could."

"I did know, Blair," Jim sighed as he sat back and rubbed his forehead, nearly ready to explode with self-loathing. "I didn't mean what I said, before you left. I just got...."

"Yeah?" Sandburg prompted when Ellison's voice faded away.

Jim slammed his fist into his palm as he admitted, hoarsely, "Scared, dammit, all right? I saw what being around me kept costing you and I was sure you'd walk, if not that day, then eventually - that it was inevitable. I didn't want to keep seeing you get hurt and paying the price for helping me, keeping my secrets. But I couldn't see another way. And I was too proud to admit that I... I needed you. I knew, I'd known for a while, that you would leave and there wasn't anything I could do to stop that from happening."

"And then I did," Blair murmured, rubbing his eyes. So much time, so much pain, and really only because they hadn't found a way to talk about what really mattered. "But not to abandon you, Jim," he sighed. "I needed to find answers, and I needed to clear my name so that I wouldn't be a drag on Major Crime if we could find a way to fit me in without having to be a full-fledged cop."

"I should have cleared your name," Jim blurted, the guilt of not having done so having weighed heavily on his spirit since the Press Conference.

"Why?" Blair demanded with honest confusion, unconsciously giving absolution but unwittingly revealing his own regret and sense of responsibility for not having pushed that conversation way back when. "You didn't ask me to trash my rep. I could have waited until you got Zeller and then sat down with you and worked it all out."

Jim settled back into his chair, feeling lighter somehow; just knowing that Blair had not expected that of him loosened a knot in his gut that had been there since it had all gone down. "Why didn't you?" he asked and then lifted a hand to wave off an explanation, unwilling to let go of his guilt so easily. "Never mind, I'll tell you why... because I was shutting you out just when I needed you to help me with my senses. I was losing control... just as I did when Danny died. You wanted me back in control so I could get Zeller. And then I just let what you did stand."

"Oh, man, Jim," Blair sighed. "I think I've proved these last months that I didn't need you to 'out' yourself to restore my reputation. I certainly didn't want you to put yourself into the spotlight. I guess I knew that what I did at that Press Conference would bother you but... we just did what we always do; we didn't talk. A lot of that was my fault; I didn't push you. I should have talked to you about alternatives to the whole cop thing but I guess I was just so overwhelmed myself at that point that I wasn't seeing straight either."

"Chief, you shouldn't have to push -"

But Blair grinned, feeling nearly euphoric as he came to understand what had really happened and that Jim maybe wanted him back as much as he wanted to come back, as he interrupted, "Yes, I should. It's part of one of the things that I've been researching. What I'm finding out is at least part of what I think Incacha was trying to tell me when he called me a shaman. Guiding your senses was not enough. I needed to be helping you deal with the baggage that life piled on your handcart. Your emotional well-being directly impacts your senses. We knew that, we just didn't allow for it. I didn't allow for it. And I'm sorry. But more, I'm learning that given your sentinel instincts and your inherent propensity to act in a kind of black and white way when you're driven to address dangerous and immediate threats, you need me, er, your guide, to help you through the emotional minefield. To keep you focused. I did it instinctively when you lost it when Incacha died, even when Danny Choi died, but I didn't know what to do when I was the one you had felt betrayed you and wasn't safe anymore. I know now... but I didn't know then."

"You are my guide," Jim asserted simply but with solemn meaning. "I don't want... never wanted... anyone different."

Simon chose that moment to slip back into the conversation, if only to ease himself out of it. Standing, he observed with a faint smile, "Well, I think my work here is done; it looks like the two of you are finally back on the right track. You say Jim needs a guide, and that he's your sentinel, and he says he doesn't want another guide but you. Work out the details, and tomorrow, bring me some options for how we might make this work on the job. If being a cop isn't the answer, fine. Just come with something better than 'my sister needs me to get her kid a job' this time, okay?"

They laughed at the memory, and Jim stood to see Simon to the door, one hand on his superior's shoulder. "Thanks, Simon," he murmured, "for staying and seeing we didn't go off the rails again. You're a good friend."

"Yes, well, you're both good friends of mine, so it works both ways," Banks demurred as he pulled on his coat. "And the two of you made one hell of a team, so it behooves me to try to get the team back in working order. I'll see you in the morning."

After he'd closed the door, Jim made Blair a fresh cup of tea, and got himself another beer. He sank down on the sofa beside Sandburg as he placed the hot mug in easy reach. Though there was now an easier silence between them, Jim was still struggling with the concept that Blair was somehow to blame for his sentinel's blow-ups. He shook his head. That would take some thinking, more talking. But there was something that he wanted to say, had needed to say for a long time. Quietly, he offered, "Blair, I never said thank you. I threw you a sop at the hospital and hoped that would be enough...."

When the words strangled in his throat, caught in the lump that rose whenever he thought about what Sandburg had done for him, given for him, Blair grinned gently as he teased to ease the emotion. "Well, I knew you were trying, although that 'best cop' was a little thick, don't you think, Jim? I mean, come on, who was it who yelled at me for 'concealing evidence' and for not checking my emotions and..." but he cut off his attempt at humor when he saw Jim stiffening again. "Jim," he said softly, as he reached out to grip his friend's arm, "I knew what you were trying to say and it sounded like thanks to me."

Jim nodded as he turned to gaze steadily into Sandburg's eyes and laid his hand over the smaller one on his arm. "Yeah, I was," he confirmed sincerely. "Whatever I might have thought or felt, however confused I was at the time, I knew when I watched that Press Conference that... that I had been wrong to doubt you. I was grateful then and I still am."

Blair smiled and sighed as his last lingering doubt that Jim, the man and the sentinel, wanted him back dissipated. "S'okay," he murmured. "We can move past all that now."

Jim squeezed his hand and then let go as he settled back against the couch. "Where do we go from here, Chief? If I finally understood you right, brain babble aside," he teased, nudging Blair in the ribs, "then you can't be a cop."

"Nope," Blair agreed. "But I am your friend and your guide. Where do we go from here? Where

do you want us to go?"

"DC is a long way from Cascade," Jim observed dryly as he took another swallow from his beer and watched as a gleam of amusement brightened his friend's eyes. Always my friend, he thought with a warm glow of peace.

"Well, they're both Washingtons," Blair quipped, and then sobered. "But, you're right, I need to come back here. We need to really talk about what I've been doing this past year or so. And what you've been doing. I've heard some of it from the others, in letters and stuff, but I'd like to hear it from you. How you've been managing. What you need. After that?"

"Jack offered you a job," Ellison recalled offhandedly, as he stared at the beer in his hand and waited for Sandburg's reaction.

"Yeah, I gathered earlier than you'd heard that; eavesdropping weren't you?" Blair commented dryly, amusement in his eyes.

But Jim got serious; it was about time he learned to really tell the kid what Blair needed to hear and he needed to say. "Chief... Blair, even when the detective isn't listening to his partner, or the man, his friend... the sentinel is always tuned into his guide. Yeah, I heard it. Eavesdropped shamelessly as a matter of fact." Pausing, screwing up his nerve to be completely honest, Jim went on, "The truth is... well... I've hoped since the day you left that you'd come back. I missed you. I just didn't know what to say or do to get you to come home again."

The look of delight on Sandburg's face made that embarrassing little admission much easier to make. Though Blair hadn't known it, would have seriously doubted it at the time, even then Jim had perceived him as his guide... and his friend. "Sounds like those signals I kept sending finally got through," Blair sighed happily.

"So, will you come back to Rainier?" Jim probed.

Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah, part-time, anyway," he agreed. "There are people now who I need to keep helping, for a while anyway, until they understand better what they are, and that would be easiest through the University. I can do that here as well as DC. They're scattered all over the country, well, the world for that matter. But," he continued as he turned to face Jim, "we need to work it out that I can work with you, give you the backup you need. A civilian consultant position would be the best option, I think. If Simon can swing it."

"Oh, I think he'll find a way," Ellison smiled, sure there would be no obstacles downtown. "Like they told you yesterday, everyone in the PD would like to see you come back and, well, everyone pretty much knows why I need you around, even if they don't know all the details." He looked around and then asked with more uncertainty, "What about where you'll live? Will you come back here?"

"Like a gnome or troll living under the stairs?" Blair mused, thinking back to how he'd consoled himself about leaving. "This is home, Jim. Where you are is home. But, uh, maybe we could get a slightly bigger place?"

Ellison looked around the loft and nodded. "We could do that," he agreed, his lips quirking into a smile. "Home is where we make it."

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

The next morning when they walked into MCU, both relaxed, Ellison's arm around Sandburg's shoulder, and Ellison laughing at something in a way he hadn't laughed for a long time, the others studied them briefly and then started to grin. "Hey, Hairboy," Henri called out, "does this mean you're really back this time?"

"Yeah, H," Blair replied with a quick, impish look up at his sentinel, "I'm really back and, this time, I'm staying."

Cheers erupted, drawing Simon from his office, but when he saw what had caused the ruckus he grinned and saluted Jim and Blair with his coffee mug. Then, taking a sip, his eyes danced as he thought how good it was to see his best team back in harness again. Things were finally, at long last, back to normal.

Well, as normal as they get, he thought with no little rueful amusement, when my best team is a Sentinel and his Guide.

END

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