Disclaimer: Not mine, yada yada yada. Actually, I secretly bought them from the morons at Paramount, so right now they are busy getting settled here in Iowa. There isn't as much crime (or rain) as in Cascade - but I'm hoping it picks up soon. I bought Jim a corn seed hat. He seems to like it. And Blair looks really cute in those overalls....

Thanks to Brenda for the quick beta. I'm starting to believe that you really do read in your sleep! And to Shy for posting - even tho she should be writing!

Reader's Digest Version: Blair's first case as an "official" member of Major Crimes concerns a death which is seemingly connected to a cult practicing ancient Peruvian rituals.

The More Things Change

by Sue Pokorny

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

Inside the small warehouse a chant, not heard for a thousand years, rose from the throats of the congregation. Torchlights flickered a few feet before them and there, garbed in the robes of an Aztec priest, a young woman raised her arms high in supplication.

Before her on a crude wooden altar, another young woman lay naked, the glint of the firelight catching the tanned hollows of her body, mirroring the fright in her frenzied eyes.

Suddenly the arms of the priestess shot upward again. This time a huge ceremonial knife was held firmly between her small hands. In a heartbeat, it lunged toward the girl on the altar and with only a tight scream that lost itself in the confines of the warehouse, she lay dead. The knife moved again, this time in a surgeon's sure rhythm. Her chest was cut open and her still-beating heart was cut out.

With a savage shriek of triumph, the priestess turned to the chanting audience, lifted the heart of the victim above her head, and shouted words that sent fire through them all.

"Claim this life, Great God Huixtocihuatl. It is for you this woman has died."

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

"Jim," Simon called from the door of his office.

Jim Ellison looked up from his computer, thankful for a respite from the frustrating contraption. Sandburg always made it look so easy - just hop onto the net and voila! Information at your fingertips. He had no idea how he was going to make it through the next twelve weeks without Blair. He hadn't realized just how much he had come to depend on his young partner until Blair had started his classes at the academy full time. It had been less than two weeks, but Jim was already starting to miss the intelligent and exuberant young man. He carefully saved the file he was working on and moved across the bullpen, entering Banks' office after a quick knock.

"What's up, sir?"

"Come on in, Jim." Banks motioned the detective into the room. "And close the door."

Ellison eyed his superior suspiciously, but complied, noting for the first time, the other man seated in the office.

"John?"

"How are you, Jim?"

"Fine." Jim took the extended hand of his old friend, his eyes betraying his concern over the presence of the Police Academy Supervisor. "What brings you to Major Crimes?"

John Reilly chuckled, shaking his head slightly. "Same old Ellison," he said. "To hell with the frivolities, right? Just cut to the chase."

Jim managed to blush, returning his old instructor's grin.

"Sorry," he shrugged. "I just have a feeling that you're not here for a social call." At the older man's nod, he sighed in exasperation. "I assume this has something to do with Sandburg?"

John reclaimed his seat, motioning for the detective to join him and the Captain.

"That kid doesn't belong in the academy, Jim," John said.

Jim stared at him, stunned. He wasn't sure what he had expected Reilly to say, but it sure as hell wasn't that. His mind quickly recovered, trying to assemble his thoughts for Blair's defense. "Look, John, I know Sandburg has a little problem with authority, but the kid's a natural cop. He's one of the best instinctual investigators I've ever seen and he's been a major asset to the department. I think Simon will back me up on that." He looked to the captain for support, receiving a nod of agreement. "Whatever he's done, just let me talk to him. He's a very smart guy, John, he can - "

John shook his head and held up his hand to stop the litany of words spilling forth from the detective.

"Talking to him is not going to help here, Jim," John said carefully. "I meant what I said before. Blair Sandburg does not belong at the academy."

Jim could feel the bottom of his world start to drop. If Blair wasn't allowed in the academy, there was no way he'd be able to continue as Jim's partner. And after the sacrifice the anthropologist had made to keep Jim's Sentinel abilities a secret, there was no way he could go back to his academic life. There had to be something he could do, someway he could fix whatever had gone wrong.

He looked to Simon again for support, but the captain had suddenly found something of intense interest on the blotter of his desk.

"Look, Jim," John continued, leaning forward in his chair. "I think I have a pretty good idea of what Sandburg means to you."

Jim simply stared at the man. There was no way he could know how much Blair meant to him. Nobody could.

"I just don't think it's in the department's best interests - or Sandburg's - to make him continue when it's obvious that he's already had the best training possible."

It took a few seconds for Reilly's words to register in Jim's mind. When they did, he looked back at the older man in confusion. "What are you saying?"

Reilly nodded his head, allowing a small smile to escape from his lips. "Seems your protegé has been giving the instructors one hell of a time. He's obviously picked up quite a bit in the last three years with you, Jim. He knows more about police procedures than most of my staff." He smiled at the pride he saw dawning in the detectives eyes. "He doesn't belong at the academy as a student, Jim. Hell he should be teaching these courses. I've already spoken to the commissioner and Captain Banks and we're all in agreement. Sandburg is in kind of a 'gray area.' Realistically, he already has over three years of experience - even though he was officially only an observer. Captain Banks is willing to vouch for his hours of service and he has already passed the required tests. He qualified on the firing range this morning with an impressive score, so, starting Monday, you've got yourself a full-time partner, Detective."

Jim's eyes sparkled at the news, his face lit up in a surprised smile. "Does Sandburg know?"

Simon shook his head. "We figured maybe you would like to be the one to break the news to him."

"It would be my pleasure, sir."

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

Jim forced himself to suppress the smile which threatened to erupt across his face as he heard his partner's old Volvo pull up outside the building. He shifted on the couch, almost giddy with enthusiasm at the news he was about to break to the young man. Blair had put his whole heart and soul into his new life - which was really quite a bit when you considered the source. Jim knew that there were still pangs of regret over losing his chance at his doctorate, but Blair had explained to him that, while he would miss the academic part of his life, his future as a detective - and Jim's "official" partner - was more than enough to make up for what he had sacrificed.

Jim felt a warmth flow through him as he recalled the conversation they had had the day before Blair had started at the academy.

"It's just hair, Chief."

The young man had been about to leave for the barber, intent on having his long, curly locks shorn to meet the academy requirements. Jim had watched him from the bathroom doorway as he took a long last look into the mirror.

"I know that, Jim. It's just...." Blair's voice became wistful, and Jim encouraged him to continue. "It's just that so much of my life has changed so fast, you know? Two weeks ago I was an Anthropologist and teaching fellow pursuing my Ph.D. and now... now suddenly that's all gone and I'm about to become a cop. A detective! It's just that this is so far from the way I expected my life to turn out, man." He had glanced back at Jim, his eyes begging for understanding. "It's not that I regret what I did, Jim. I don't. I meant what I said. The money, the recognition - that may have been my dream before - but somewhere along the line that all changed. I changed." His voice became softer and his eyes moved back to the reflection in the mirror. "So much of my life has changed, man. It's just hard to think about looking in this mirror and seeing a stranger staring back. That's what I'm afraid of. I've lost so much of me, of who and what I thought I was, I'm afraid that if I lose any more...."

"That you'll be completely lost." Jim finished for him, finally understanding how truly difficult the upheaval had been on his young friend. He moved into the small room and stood behind Blair, placing his hands on his friend's shoulders. "No matter what reflects back from this mirror, Chief, the man I see will always be my friend." He caught the younger man's eyes in the mirror and held them with his own. "I know what you've given up for me. I have no way of repaying that gift. But I want you to know that I will always be here for you. That's a promise."

"Thanks, Jim."

Jim watched as Blair took one last look at the reflection in the mirror.

"You don't have to do this, Chief."

"I want to, Jim. I want to be your partner."

"You already are my partner, Sandburg. Nothing is going to change that. What I meant was you don't have to cut the hair." At Blair's look of surprise, Jim explained. "I managed to convince the commissioner to wave the requirements in your case. As long as you keep it neat and in a ponytail, the hair isn't a problem."

Blair turned in the cramped quarters, his surprise and delight lighting up his expressive face. "Really? Oh man, that's great! You did that for me?"

Jim chuckled at the memory, quickly hiding his smile as he heard the keys jingle in the lock of the loft door. He sat back on the couch, watching as Sandburg shuffled in from the hall. The young man looked beat. His backpack was dropped unceremoniously beside the door, which he kicked shut with his foot before leaning wearily back against it. His eyes were closed as he leaned his head back against the hard wooden surface and let out a deep sigh.

"Rough day, Chief?"

Blair jumped at the sudden sound of his roommate's voice. He threw an irritated look toward his friend while he waited for his heart to jump back out of his throat. "Geez, Jim. Give a guy a heart attack why don't you." As soon as he had collected himself, he pushed away from the door and turned to confront the detective. "What are you doing here anyway?" he asked cautiously. "You should still be at work."

"Simon let me go early," Jim explained. "There was something important I had to take care of."

Blair nodded slowly, not liking the look he saw on his partner's face. "Something you had to take care of?" he asked, squinting his eyes as he tried to guess what that "something" could be.

"I had a visit from John Reilly today," Jim continued. He kept his face carefully schooled, fighting the urge to grin as he noticed Blair's reaction to the name.

"John Reilly? As in Captain Reilly? The Supervisor of the academy?"

Jim nodded, watching a myriad of emotions flash across Blair's face.

"I don't suppose it was just a social call?"

Jim shook his head slowly. "He wanted to talk to me about you."

Blair crossed to the couch and slumped down against the cushions. Jim bit the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning and spoiling the surprise.

"I'm sorry."

"For what, Chief?"

Blair leaned forward, burying his face in his hands. "I tried, Jim. I really tried. But they hate me."

"Who?"

"The instructors, the other cadets. They all treat me like I'm some kind of alien, man. Maybe we should have waited for the next term to start instead of jumping into this one when it was almost halfway through. Maybe the press conference and the thesis and the whole Sentinel thing would have been forgotten by then, you know?"

His voice was so desperate that Jim decided to let him off the hook.

"Sandburg, nobody hates you. They're all just a little intimidated by you."

Blair's eyebrows rose in shock at Jim's words.

"It's true," Jim laughed. "That's what Reilly wanted to talk to me about."

When Blair continued to stare at him in confusion, Jim rose from his position on the loveseat and relocated to the coffee table directly in front of his partner.

"John wanted to tell me that you don't belong in the academy." He held up his hand to stop Blair's reaction. "He told me that it was a waste of their time and yours, not to mention the taxpayer's money. They don't hate you, Chief. They just recognized what I've known all along. You are already a cop. You have been for a quite a while now." He picked up the small, black wallet from the table behind him and tossed it to his stunned friend. "You've already met all the academy requirements, Chief, and Simon and I have vouched for the time you've put in on the job in the last three years which is more than enough to satisfy the academy's training hours requirement. Since you qualified on the firing range this morning, they've decided to graduate you early. Starting Monday, you are an official member of Major Crimes, Detective Sandburg."

Blair opened the wallet and stared at the gold shield. His eyes moved to the left and he noticed that the other side of the wallet now held an official Cascade Police Department ID with his own photo smiling back at him.

"Detective Sandburg," he repeated, his fingers lightly touching the cool metal of the badge. He looked up to see his partner grinning at him in amusement and returned the smile. "That's going to take a little getting used to."

Jim laughed and nodded in agreement. "Tell me about it."

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

As soon as the two men entered the bullpen, the members of Major Crimes stood and welcomed them with whoops and cheers and a very loud round of applause. Jim grinned down at his "official" partner, catching the flush of embarrassment along with the wealth of emotion the reception elicited. He put an arm around the younger man's shoulders, privately vowing to thank each and every one of his fellow detectives for making the newest member of the department feel so welcomed.

Blair quickly regained his composure and flashed a brilliant smile, holding his hands up in an appreciative gesture. He followed Jim across the room amidst the many handshakes and claps on the back from the other officers.

Simon was waiting for them when they finally broke free of the well wishers, a pained smile on his dark features. "I hope you don't intend on making that type of an entrance a habit, Sandburg."

Blair smiled at his superior, still slightly buzzing from the warmth of the reception. "Uh, no, Simon, I mean Captain, sir." He glanced at Jim and shrugged. This was going to take a lot of getting used to.

Simon looked fondly on his newest detective. "Welcome to the department, Sandburg." He held out his hand to the bewildered young man who took it and stammered his thanks. "Ah," Simon said wistfully. "His first day on the job and he's already speechless. If it could only last."

Jim, who had taken a seat behind his desk, watched the byplay with an amused expression. "I think our reprieve is about over, sir." He grinned at his partner.

"Just as well," Simon said, suddenly becoming serious. "You have a body over on Wells near the old freight yard." He handed a file to Ellison. "Young woman, Hispanic. Killed sometime last night. Forensics is already there."

"We're on it, sir."

Simon nodded and took a step toward his office before turning and placing a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Be careful out there, Detective." He turned and walked into his office leaving a very stunned young man in his wake.

Jim clamped a hand down on his partner's other shoulder, a feeling of pride washing over him as he gazed at Blair's shocked expression. "You heard the man. We've got work to do, partner." With that he steered his friend out of the bullpen.

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

The small warehouse was located directly across from the old freight yard in a poorer section of Cascade's Hispanic community. It was a close neighborhood that did not openly welcome outside intrusion from the police or other government institutions. The scene was a flurry of activity with many official vehicles parked haphazardly across the adjoining lot. Jim flashed his badge with practiced ease to the uniformed officer guarding the door and watched in amusement as Blair fumbled with his own shield. The younger man shrugged apologetically as the officer waved them both through the warehouse door.

Inside, old routines quickly fell into place as Jim turned up his senses to survey the scene. First he focused on his sense of sight, surveying the large room with a practiced eye. He felt his partner's presence behind him to the right and allowed the sensation to ground him as he let his senses drift. The body was still lying upon a crude wooden altar. It had been covered with a plastic sheet, but Jim could see the copious amount of blood that stained the wood and the cement floor beneath it. The blood also registered it's coppery scent on his sense of smell which he quickly turned down as the scent began to overpower him.

"Easy, Jim," Blair coaxed. "Take your time, man. Just focus on one sense at a time."

Jim nodded. He took a deep breath, centering himself around his partner's soft voice, and turned the dials back up a notch. His brow furrowed as he caught a scent, hidden beneath the stronger metallic scent of the blood.

"What is it?"

Jim shook his head slightly. "I don't know, Chief. Something..." he inhaled a bit more deeply before shaking his head again in frustration. "Some kind of herb or something. It's familiar, but I just can't place it."

"It's okay," Blair soothed. "Just file it away. We'll work it out later."

Nodding, Jim sought out the leader of the Forensics team.

"Hey, Jim, Blair." Serena nodded at each of the detectives before getting down to business. "We've managed to I.D. the body as Celena Slavana. 22 years of age. We found her clothes and purse in a dumpster out back. She didn't have a driver's license but there was an ID card from Carlson Construction. She was found here by the security guard who patrols this district early this morning." As she spoke, she crossed the short distance to the body and pulled the sheet back revealing what was once a lovely Hispanic girl.

Blair swallowed hard as he took in the blood spattered face of the girl, his eyes roaming down to the gaping hole in the center of her chest.

"Did anyone get a statement from the guard?" Jim asked, stepping closer to examine the body.

"Right here." Serena pulled a sheet of paper from her clipboard and handed it to Blair. The younger man took the paper, grateful for something other than the body to focus his attention on.

"From what we can determine, there are two wounds." Serena continued. "The first is a simple stab wound in the lower chest. That could or could not have been the fatal stroke. The second is the precise surgical cut into the chest cavity itself."

"Her heart is gone." Jim's soft voice drew Blair's eyes back to the body. His eyes widened as he began to understand the implications of Serena's words.

"You mean it's possible that she was still alive when - " he couldn't finish the thought. It was too horrible to even contemplate. He could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears and he struggled to breathe around the sudden tightness in his chest.

"Easy, Chief," Jim was quickly in front of his partner, blocking the younger man's view of the body. He had heard Blair's heartbeat escalate and swiftly tried to calm his friend down. "Just breathe, Blair." After a few moments, the young man had regained his composure, keeping his eyes carefully trained on the ground to hide his embarrassment. Jim turned to see Serena watching Blair with a sympathetic expression. "Thanks, Serena. Have your reports on my desk as soon as possible."

"Will do, Jim."

Without another word, Jim turned his partner and steered him back out into the overcast afternoon. Blair took a few deep breaths, the fresh air helping to clear his head.

"Better?"

Blair looked at Jim sheepishly, turning away quickly in an attempt to hide his discomfort. "Oh, man, I'm sorry," he said glancing back at the older man. "I just... I mean I can't... damn." He bowed his head, uttering the last word in a fierce whisper. After a few moments he turned, his eyes filled with sadness. "I just don't think I'll ever get used to that," he said jerking his head toward the warehouse. "How can anyone be so cruel?"

"I don't know, Chief," Jim said softly. "And I hope you never get used to it."

"What happened to checking your emotions at the door?"

"That's not who you are, Sandburg."

Blair smiled, touched by the older man's simple statement.

"What now?"

"Now, we find the slime who did this. I think Carlson Construction might be a good place to start."

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

A quick call to the Carlson Construction office directed them to a building site near the waterfront where Celena's boss was supervising the construction of a new office tower. A worker on the ground pointed to the top of the 10 story structure in response to Jim's inquiry.

They were both handed hard hats and led to a wire mesh elevator that was positioned on a track on the edge of the building. Jim was aware of his partner's accelerated heartbeat as the steel cage lurched upwards, giving them an unobstructed view of the waterfront from a riding vantage point. He glanced at Blair, not surprised to see the young man's eyes closed and his lips moving slightly. Raising the dial on his hearing a few notches, he was able to decipher the softly whispered mantra.

"Don't look down. Don't look down. Don't even think about looking down."

Jim smiled, finding himself once again amazed at his friend's courage. A fear of heights would have frozen most men in their tracks, but not Blair. The fledgling detective always managed to find a way to push his fears aside in order to get the job done. Blair may come across as a peace-loving neo-hippie flower child, but Jim knew better. Whenever it mattered, the young man could be as tenacious as a pit bull.

The elevator stopped with another lurch and the construction worker opened the gate, motioning for the two detectives to disembark. As soon as he touched the secure flooring of the open building, Blair relaxed a little, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves.

Jim followed the construction worker's directions toward a middle aged man dressed in casual attire who was leaning on a makeshift desk of saw horses and plywood about halfway across the platform.

"Evan Craig?" Jim asked, projecting his voice to be heard above the sounds of the construction.

"Yes, sir," Craig said, looking up from the blue prints he had been studying. "What can I do for you?"

Jim pulled his badge. "I'm Detective Ellison, this is my partner, Detective Sandburg. We'd like to ask you a few questions about a young woman by the name of Celena Slavana. I understand she worked for you?"

Craig nodded, his expression turning to one of concern. "Yeah, Celena has worked for me for about a year and a half now. What's this about, Detective? Is Celena alright?"

"I'm afraid she's dead," Jim said bluntly. He watched the man closely, his Sentinel senses assuring him that Craig had not known about his employee's death. "Can you tell us anything about Ms. Slavana? Who did she know? Where she hung out?"

Craig shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry. I only knew her from the office. She was a nice kid. Always smiling. I can have her employee file sent to you, if you think that will help?"

"We'd appreciate that," Jim assured him.

"Did you know any of her friends?" Blair asked. "Maybe a boyfriend?"

Craig pursed his lips in thought, his eyes suddenly opening wide at a memory. "I think she went out with Hector a few times." He looked at the two men apologetically. "I hear some of the scuttle amongst the workers, but I don't really pay that much attention."

"I take it Hector works for you also?"

"Yeah. Hector Ramirez. Nice kid. Good worker. Hey Marty!" He turned and called across the open distance to another man rigging a beam near the edge of the building. "Where's Hector?"

"Should be on the ground," Marty called back. "I sent him on break about ten minutes ago."

Craig waved a hand in thanks and returned his attention to the detectives. "You should be able to find him near the lunch wagon."

"Thanks for your time," Jim said, shaking hands with the man. He placed a hand on Blair's shoulder and guided him back to the waiting elevator. As soon as they were on the ground, they returned their hats to the trailer, which served as the site office, and went in search of Hector Ramirez. They found him leaning against a brown Chevy pickup, drinking from a bottle of water.

"Hector Ramirez?" Jim asked, once again flashing his badge. "Could we have a word with you?"

The dark-skinned young man tensed as the two men approached. He lowered the bottle and placed it on the fender of the truck, nervously brushing his shaggy black hair from his eyes. "What do you want?"

Jim could hear the nervous tremor in his voice as well as the sudden increase in his heartbeat. "We just want to ask you a few questions. Do you know Celena Slavana?"

"Yeah. Why?" His nervousness was immediately replaced by confusion and concern at the mention of the woman's name. "Is she okay? Did something happen to her?"

Jim scanned the young man, detecting his obvious anxiety. "I'm afraid she was murdered last night."

"Oh, God," The pain in Ramirez' heart was reflected in his dark eyes. "Oh, God, no."

Blair moved around his partner and laid a hand on Hector's arm. "I'm sorry," he said sympathetically. "The two of you were close?" It was more of a statement than a question and elicited a nod from Ramirez.

He looked up into Blair's eyes and read the honest emotion there. "Yeah," he whispered. "At least we were." He leaned back against the truck, his body suddenly slack. "We've been seeing each other on and off for a couple of months. Everything was great and then..."

His voice trailed off, causing the two detectives to exchange a look of confusion.

"What happened?"

Hector shrugged in response to Blair's question. "I don't know. Celena just started acting really weird. If I didn't know her better I would have sworn that she was using, man." He shrugged tiredly and shook his head. "She had gotten involved with this group in her neighborhood. They chanted and told stories about ancient gods. I went with her to one of the ceremonies once. It was kind of creepy." He took a deep shuddering breath and wiped absently at the tears that carved clean through the dirt on his face. "She started to go to more of these ceremonies. I tried to get her to stop, but she just laughed at me and told me that being one with the great god would return our people to the days of splendor."

Jim exchanged a look with his partner who shrugged in return. "Did she ever mention any names?" Blair asked, his curiosity piqued by Hector's story. "Anything that sounded strange?"

"It all sounded strange," Hector snorted sarcastically. "Celena was a beautiful person. Then suddenly she was so wrapped up in this crap that nothing else mattered." He wrapped his arms around his torso and bowed his head. "She did mention a name though. Magdalena Solis. I guess that was the name of the girl who conducted the ceremonies. The people believe that she's some kind of priestess of some old Mexican god named Hicks... Hicks-to-cot... something like that."

"Huixtocihuatl?"

Both men looked at Blair in surprise.

"Yeah," Hector nodded, his eyebrows arching upwards. "That's it."

"Huixtocihuatl was the Aztec god of war," Blair explained, unconsciously falling back into a familiar teaching mode. "To the ancient Aztecs he symbolized the warrior's death on the gladiatorial stone of combat. He was also hailed as a serpent-god of lightning so he was held in high reverence because they believed he could control the rain god Tlaloc and therefore grant them fair weather for their crops."

He looked from Jim to Ramirez, smiling apologetically for the impromptu lecture. "Sorry," he said. "Old habits."

"So you know of this religion?" Hector asked.

"Uh, no, not really. I've studied a little about the Aztecs and their civilization."

"Do you know where we can find this Magdalena Solis?" Jim asked.

Hector shook his head. "No. Like I said, I only went to one of the ceremonies. It was held in an old warehouse by the freight yard. I can ask around if you want."

"Thank you, Mr. Ramirez, we'd appreciate any help you could give us." Jim handed Ramirez one of his cards. "If you find anything, please call me."

The detectives made their way back to the truck and climbed in. Jim glanced at Blair, noting the furrowing of the young man's brow which indicated that the former grad student was deep in thought. "What is it, Chief?"

Blair took a deep breath and turned haunted eyes to his friend. "Jim, Huixtocihuatl had priests who were once considered the religious heads of the Mexican priesthood. They believed in human sacrifice to appease the god's need for food."

Jim considered his partner's softly spoken statement. "Do you think that's what happened to Celena Slavana?"

"I don't know. These ancient religions were based on beliefs from a whole different time and place. Most of their practices would be considered barbaric by our standards of civilization causing them to die out a long time ago."

Jim nodded and started the truck. "Maybe we can get some answers from Magdalena Solis."

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

Talking to the people in the Hispanic neighborhood had proven fruitless. Nobody would answer any questions concerning Celena Slavana or Magdalena Solis. A few frustrating hours later, Jim and Blair returned to the station to see what forensics had come up with.

The reports were on Jim's desk when they arrived. While Jim read the report concerning the evidence at the scene, Blair scanned the coroners preliminary report on Celena Slavana's body. According to the coroner, the first wound probably was not immediately mortal although she was probably unconscious when the knife struck the second time. Blair shuddered, forcing his memory away from the vivid image of the body.

Skimming down the page, he noticed that they had found traces of an unusual variety of marijuana and cow's blood in her stomach. Marijuana? Was that the herb Jim had not recognized?

"Hey, Jim. Back at the warehouse, you said there was a scent you couldn't place."

Jim looked up from his report, his eyes losing their focus momentarily as he accessed the memory. "It was some kind of herb," he said. "It was familiar but I couldn't quite place it."

Blair motioned to the coroner's report with his chin. "It says here that they found a mixture of cow's blood, peyote and a rare strain of marijuana in her stomach."

Jim's eyes widened in surprise.

"Marijuana?" Blair laughed, glancing at his partner incredulously. "You didn't recognize marijuana?"

"We were trained to recognize the smell of the smoke, Darwin. It's not normally taken internally." Jim glared at him for a moment longer before returning his attention to the reports and mumbling something about not being a hippie in the sixties.

Blair was still smiling when Captain Banks approached their desks.

"I hope your demeanor indicates progress?"

Jim steadfastly ignored his partner and filled the captain in on what they had so far. "Rafe and Brown came up empty at the victim's house exccept for a few books on ancient religions and myths. I'm running the name Magdalena Solis through the computer but we haven't come up with anything yet," he concluded.

"So what's the connection with this Aztec god thing?"

Blair looked up to find both men staring at him patiently.

"Oh, right. Like I told Jim before, Huixtocihuatl was the Aztec War-God. He was worshipped because the people believed that he controlled the sun and rain and, basically, their fate. I did a little reading on the web and found out that May 31 was significant in that a major ceremony was held for Huixtocihuatl in which a sacrifice was offered up to appease him until the following year."

"And Celena Slavana was killed on May 31st," Jim finished for him.

"Hey, Jim!"

All three looked across the bullpen at the approaching figure of Detective Henri Brown. "This was just faxed here from Monterrey, Mexico. Did you put out some feelers on one Magdalena Solis?"

Jim nodded and accepted the file from the detective. "Thanks, H."

"No problem, man."

Blair jumped up and moved behind the Sentinel, reading quietly over the detective's shoulder.

"Well, well," Jim's eyebrow's rose as he scanned the pages. "Seems our Ms. Solis and her twin brother Eleazar were members of a religious cult in Monterrey about a year ago. The cult leaders and about ten of their followers were found dead. The police seem to think there was some kind of dissention in the ranks and the leaders were poisoned. The Solis' managed to elude the authorities and disappeared."

"I would suggest you find Ms. Solis and her brother and have a chat with them," Simon suggested.

"That's going to be easier said than done, sir." Jim ran a hand over his face in frustration. "Nobody in that neighborhood is willing to give us the time of day."

"Sandburg! Line two."

Blair glanced at the phone on his desk in surprise. He grinned cheekily at his partner as he picked up the receiver and connected the line. "Detective Sandburg," he said, his voice betraying his amusement at using the title. The smile quickly faded and he fumbled for a pen, scratching something down on a notepad. "Okay. Got it. We'll meet you there in twenty minutes."

He hung up and ripped the top sheet of paper from the pad, holding it out to Jim. "That was Hector Ramirez. He found someone willing to talk to us about Celena and Magdalena Solis."

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

Magdalena Solis looked up from the wooden table and smiled patiently at her brother. "You are worried about nothing, Eleazar."

Eleazar sat heavily in the chair opposite his sister and leaned across the table. "Hector Ramirez has already spoken to the police," he said sharply. "If they connect us to the death of that girl - "

"Celena gave her life willingly. She has now gone on to a greater glory in the house of Huixtocihuatl."

Eleazar took a deep breath and shook his head in frustration. He loved his sister dearly, but sometimes her failure to grasp the trappings of reality in favor of her own colorful beliefs made his life much harder. "Magdalena," he began in a slow, calm voice, much like one used with a child, "Celena is dead. The police won't care whether she agreed to it or not. She was stabbed and her heart was ripped out. To them that is murder!"

The patient smile never left the young woman's face and she reached across, gently taking her brother's hand in her own. "My dear brother. We are protected by the Great God himself. Hector Ramirez needs only to be shown the way. His body is corrupted, but we can save his soul. Bring him to me tonight. We will hold the ceremony in his honor."

Eleazar nodded and placed his other hand over his sister's.

"He will be there," he assured her, pleased at the satisfied smile on her face. "I will see to it."

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

The sun was setting by the time they pulled up to the aging house on Coronado Street. The one story dwelling was in need of repair, but still one of the better houses in the neighborhood. Jim noticed the curtains shifting slightly as they walked across the weed infested front lawn toward the front door. He raised his hand to knock and could hear the sound of footsteps approaching from the inside.

The door cracked open a bit, the anxious face of Hector Ramirez peeking out from the bright interior. "Detectives," he greeted. "Come in."

He stepped back, opening the door fully to allow both men access to the house. He craned his neck, scanning the darkened street before closing the door and locking it behind him. He led the way to a small kitchen at the back of the house and stood behind an old woman who sat at the green formica table.

"Detectives Ellison and Sandburg, this is Rosa Garcia."

"It's a pleasure to meet you Ms. Garcia." Blair graced her with a warm, charming smile "Thank you for agreeing to talk with us."

"Please, it's Rosa," she said, returning the smile. Her voice was soft and still held a hint of an accent. Her large brown eyes held a lifetime of wisdom and Blair found himself warming to her instantly. She motioned for the detectives to be seated on the other side of the table.

"Can I get you something to drink?" she offered. "Coffee, some tea?"

"Tea would be nice," Blair responded. He glanced at Jim, who nodded silently, indicating that Blair should handle the interview. The way people opened up to Blair was amazing. It was because Blair was honestly interested in the people and their problems. His natural empathy was enough to make most witnesses feel immediately at ease, allowing them to relate information they would not normally feel like sharing. Jim could see that Rosa Garcia was not immune to the Sandburg charm. She would talk to him and Jim was willing to let his young partner take the lead.

Soon they were all seated in the warmly lit kitchen, four cups of tea before them on the table.

"Rosa," Blair began. "Hector told us that you could give us some information about Celena Slavana."

Rosa looked at Hector, sympathy pooling in her eyes. "Poor Hector," she intoned. She placed her hand over the young man's, squeezing it affectionately. "He loved her so much."

Blair took a sip of his tea, waiting for the woman to continue. "Celena was a lovely girl. So full of life and happiness. But, like most young girls, she longed for better things. We are a poor neighborhood, Detective."

"Blair," Sandburg interrupted.

"Blair," Rosa repeated, flashing him a warm smile. "We do not have much. When someone comes, promising hope for a richer future, the people listen."

"Is that what happened?" Jim asked. "Did someone promise a richer future?"

Rosa nodded sadly. "They arrived about a month ago. The priestess and her brother. They are devils, I tell you. They have weaved their spell over the good, honest people of this community."

Blair glanced at Jim, noting that the Sentinel had picked up on the anger in Rosa's voice.

"What do you know about Magdalena and Eleazar Solis?"

"Just that they are evil." Rosa raised her head and looked down her nose at the older man, daring him to dispute her. "There is something not right with them. Something dangerous."

"Do you know anything about these ceremonies that are performed?"

Rosa's eyes softened when she returned her gaze to Blair. "I have never been to one, no. I only know what I've heard. They are ceremonies of sacrifice. This Solis woman, she preaches the return to ancient ways. The ceremonies have become rituals of blood and death. I know many people who believe that she was sent by the old gods to lead them back to a better life. They believe she has magic. They believe she has the blessings of the gods. The people of this community have been poisoned. I do not know how, but she has them under her spell. These rituals are cursed. I know that Celena was part of one and she never returned. That is all I can tell you."

"We haven't been able to find an address for Magdalena or Eleazar Solis," Blair said, looking at Rosa expectantly. "Do you have any idea where we can find them?"

"They are rumored to stay at an old church by the railroad tracks. I do not know the address."

Jim stood and smiled at the old woman. "Thank you, Ms. Garcia." He stepped away from the table as Blair pushed his chair back, stopping when Rosa grabbed his hand and held it tight.

"Be careful," she warned. She gazed into the young man's soulful blue eyes, freezing Blair in his tracks with their intensity. "They are evil. Your kind frighten them. They will not hesitate to kill you."

Blair swallowed, and tore his eyes from the old woman's. "We'll be careful," he promised.

It was a promise he meant to keep.

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

Jim opened the truck and looked back at Hector who had said his good-byes to Rosa and followed them out of the house. Ellison did not miss the young man's nervous glances up and down the dark street as he made his way to the old Chevy pickup parked on the street.

"Maybe you should go with him," Jim suggested. He had noticed Blair watching the young man also. "He looks like he could use someone to talk to." He knew that Blair's empathic nature was in full force and that the kid would want the opportunity to help Hector process some of his grief.

"Maybe," Blair said, his voice holding a hint of uncertainty. "But you'll need me if you're going to find that church."

"I'll head back to the station and fill Simon in on what we've got. Maybe I'll be able to pull an address from the computer."

Blair looked at his partner, gauging the honesty of his statement.

"Okay," he said finally. "But under no circumstances do you do anything - and I mean anything, Jim - without me. You got that?"

Jim held up his right hand. "Scout's honor, Chief. You go ahead. I've got Hector's address. I'll pick you up in an hour."

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

"Look, man, nobody can save someone who doesn't want to be saved." Blair was doing his best to convince the younger man that he was not responsible for what happened to Celena. God, this kid can do guilt almost as well as Ellison. "You loved her, right? You were there for her, right?"

Hector nodded but didn't utter a word. He had been very quiet since they had pulled up in front of his house. They had gotten out of Hector's truck, and now sat on the hood, their feet resting on the bumper, staring out into the dark night. A storm was brewing out over the coast and the winds had picked up, grabbing relentlessly at their hair and clothing. Blair knew from experience that the guilt Hector was feeling would not dissipate anytime soon. He felt that he had let Celena down - that he should have been able to protect her. But you can't protect someone from themselves.

"Hector, you have to give yourself a break, here, man. Celena made a choice. We'll find out what happened at that ceremony, and whoever is responsible for her death will pay. But being part of... whatever this all is... that was her choice. You can't take the blame for her."

Hector sighed. When he looked at Blair, the young detective was pleased to see a sliver of peace amid the turmoil in his dark eyes. "My head knows what you're saying is true," he said softly. "But my heart..." His voice trailed off as a tear rolled slowly down his cheek.

"Your heart will realize it, too," Blair said, placing a comforting hand on Hector's shoulder. "It'll just take it a little longer."

He was rewarded with a small smile and nod of acceptance from the young Hispanic man. Hector wiped the tears from his face and slowly lowered himself off the hood of the car. "Looks like the storm's gonna let loose any minute. Do you want to come inside and wait for your partner? I think I have a couple beers in the 'fridge."

Blair smiled warmly and jumped off the car. "That sounds like a plan."

Blair pulled his phone from his jacket pocket as the two men made their way across the narrow lawn to the front door of the small house. Jim was probably still at the station, and Blair wanted to see if his partner had been able to come up with an address for the Solis'. He wanted to find whomever was responsible for Celena Slavana's death. He knew that the only way Hector was ever going to be able to begin the process of forgiving himself was if he knew what had really happened the night Celena had died.

He had just begun to dial the number for Jim's cell when a sound from behind his made him turn. He caught a glimpse of a large shadow before something hard smashed against the left side of his head and the night exploded in a blinding flash of pain. He heard Hector's startled scream, muffled against the distant sound of thunder, and Blair suddenly found himself falling to the ground. He never felt the impact.

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

Jim pulled up behind Hector's rusty Chevy, glancing apprehensively at the dark house, barely visible behind the sheets of rain. The storm had let loose soon after he had left the station and he had been forced to drive cautiously due to the Ford's wiper's inability to keep up with the downpour. He had tried to call Blair's cell phone several times to warn his partner that he was on his way, but each time had been thwarted by a busy signal over the line. An uneasy feeling had begun to creep from his gut and now exploded into a full fledged fear as he stared at the dark, silent structure before him.

A sudden flash of lightning warned him, allowing him a few scant seconds to turn down his hearing before a clap of thunder rolled across the heavens. He shook his head, fighting the echo that reverberated in his head, forcing his hearing back up in an effort to hear inside the house.

There was nothing.

Jumping out of the truck, he dashed to the front porch, the icy rain soaking his clothes, causing them to cling to his body uncomfortably. His foot kicked something small and hard at the base of the step. Turning up his Sentinel sight for a brief moment, he was able to discern the dark, black rectangular shape against the even darker mud of the front yard.

It was Blair's cell phone.

Jim picked up the phone and shoved it into his pocket before moving up the two steps to the front door. His nerves tensed as he noticed the door sitting slightly ajar, the shadowy blackness blanketing the interior of the house. Pushing the door slowly, he inched into the house, gun drawn, and stretched his hearing momentarily.

Nothing.

With one last look around, Jim hurried back out to the truck, shaking the water from his hair as soon as he slammed the door closed. The shrill ring of his own cell phone startled him and he pulled it brusquely from his jacket pocket.

"Ellison," he snarled into the phone.

"Jim, it's Simon. We've got a possible address on the church."

Jim flinched as the lightning flashed again through the windshield and braced himself for the accompanying clap of thunder. "Simon, we have another problem. Blair is missing. I'm at Hector Ramirez' house now. Ramirez' truck is parked out front and the door to the house was open but there's no sign of either him or Blair. I found Blair's cell phone on the ground outside the house, sir."

The silence at the other end of the line made it obvious that Simon understood the implications of the statement.

"Sir, if the Solis' knew that Hector was talking to the cops.."

"Then they would perceive him as a threat and possibly try to eliminate that threat," Banks finished for him.

"Yes, sir. And if they were here when Blair and Hector arrived..."

"Then they've got them both." Simon concluded. He rattled off an address which Jim recognized as being a few blocks away, near the old freightyard.

"I can be there in five minutes, sir." He pushed the button on the cell to disconnect the call and tossed it onto the seat beside him. The Solis' had apparently already murdered one person in their psychotic little game and if what Rosa Garcia said was true, they were intent on building up some kind of ritualistic cult where human sacrifice was an acceptable practice. Jim could feel his fear for his partner turning his heart to ice as he started the truck and gunned the engine.

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

The hypnotic chant echoed in Blair's ears in time with the dull throbbing that pulsed in his head. He could feel a chill seeping into his body from the dank, wet earth he lay on and shivered as he forced his muddled mind to function. He remembered pulling out his phone to call Jim and then a flash of pain before everything suddenly went dark. He tried to move his hands to his aching head, but found them held securely behind his back. Cracking his eyes open slightly, he slowly gazed at his surroundings, trying to piece together the puzzle of his situation.

He was in a cave - or what looked like a cave. The dirt walls shone with a wet sheen, reflecting the bright fires of the torches which were placed around the room. The crude wooden alter which sat at one end of the room was covered with a sheet of rich red satin that reminded Blair of the color of blood. Many people sat before the altar, their low voices joining in an ancient chant which rose in pitch like some maddened wail.

He was off to the far left of the congregation, his back to the wall. Tilting his head up he could see the dark head of Hector Ramirez lying motionless a few feet away.

"Hector!" he whispered, keeping a wary eye on the assembly in front of him. "Hector!"

The youth stirred slightly, but did not respond. Blair was relieved that Hector was alive and returned his attention to the situation at hand. Jim would come looking for him, that he was sure of. He was probably already searching. His mind was clearing and he could now remember the shadows that had surprised them at Hector's house. They had been waiting for them - patiently hiding in the bushes near the house until the prey was in position on the small porch. Then they had ambushed them from behind, knocking them out and taking them ...here. Wherever the hell here was.

Blair's thoughts were interrupted by the crescendo of the voices within the small room. He felt his blood turn to ice as the chant became almost deafening, gripping those who sang it with a fever their blood could not contain. A cup was passed from lip to lip and the worshippers each drank deeply from it. When all had finished, the cup was passed to a menacing looking youth who turned hate filled eyes to the young detective.

Blair recognized Eleazar Solis from the photo on the police report from Monterrey. He pressed himself backwards into the wall as Solis moved toward him, the evil glint in his eyes flashing in the dim torchlight. Blair struggled against the restraints binding his hands and feet, but succeeded in doing little more than rubbing the already abused skin from his chaffed wrists and ankles.

"You don't want to do this," he warned. He tried to keep his voice level, but it wavered as the youth continued to advance. "I'm a police officer. If you let me go now, I can help you."

Solis merely laughed and kneeled down beside him, one knee digging cruelly into Blair's chest.

"I am not the one who is in need of help," the young man responded, his lips turned up in a feral grin.

He held the cup to Blair's lips, pushing his knee deeper into the detective's chest until his mouth opened in a cry of pain. The cry was cut short as the warm liquid spilled into his mouth and down his throat. His stomach reacted violently as his taste buds registered the metallic taste of the blood, expelling it and what was left of his meager lunch onto the dirt floor before him.

Eleazar moved back, a disgusted look on his face. As soon as Blair's stomach stopped heaving, Eleazar slapped him hard across the cheek, forcing his face into the dirt. Before Blair could move to defend himself, Eleazar grabbed his hair and forced his head back, pouring more of the foul liquid down his throat. Blair fought the queasiness in his stomach as Eleazar emptied the cup, his eyes blazing with insane pleasure.

"You will witness our power before you die."

Even as he fought to control his rolling stomach, Blair could feel the drug already taking effect. His eyesight was becoming unfocused and his entire body was beginning to buzz with an eerie electricity. He watched helplessly as Eleazar motioned for two other men to lift Hector and carry him to the front of the room. They laid him on the altar, stripping his shirt from his body before pouring some of the blood mixture into his mouth.

"No!" Blair called, fumbling at his bonds. His entire body was sluggish, not quite obeying his commands, and he slumped back down to the floor, fighting for breath. A loud gasp from the worshippers brought his attention back to the front of the room and he watched in awe as a young woman swirled before them, seemingly from out of nowhere, behind the altar.

She was wrapped in splendid, vibrantly colored robes. Flashes of paint lined her lithe, tanned body and colorful feathers adorned her hair. Blair blinked as the scene faded in and out of focus, understanding how these poor people could believe that this vision was truly sent from the gods. When she spoke, her voice was melodious, drawing the drugged worshippers even further into her spell.

Blair closed his eyes and squeezed his hands into fists behind his back, twisting his wrists against the coarse rope of his bindings. He could feel the blood begin to run down his hand from the burning wounds inflicted by the rope and he focused on the pain, allowing it to clear the fog from his mind caused by the drug coursing through his system. Finding a tentative purchase on reality, he pushed his feet out in front of him and forced himself into a sitting position against the damp wall.

The girl - Magdalena Solis, Blair presumed - had finished her dance and now stood over Hector, who still lay unconscious on the altar. "This man is a nonbeliever!" She said, her voice rising above the now soft chanting. "His life will be forfeit so that his soul may be saved."

The huge ceremonial knife glinted in the flickering light as her arm arced into the air above the prone man. "Claim this life, Great God Huixtocihuatl. It is for your glory that his life is offered!"

"NO!"

Magdalena's cold eyes bore into Blair as she held the knife above her head.

He turned to the congregation, noting that many of them were now staring at him with rage in their eyes.

"This woman is an imposter!" he shouted. "She has not been sent by the gods. She cannot lead you into a better life. She can only bring you death and destruction." The chanting had ceased and Blair found himself the center of attention. Clearing his throat he quickly dropped his voice into the melodic tone that he used when guiding Jim to use his senses and looked over the crown with more confidence than he actually felt. "Hear me," he commanded. "I am a Shaman of the Chopec tribe. This woman is a false god. She has drugged you, trying to bend your minds to satisfy her own evil intentions. She is not the messenger of the Great Huixtocihuatl. She has lied to you, manipulated your desire to believe and made you a party to murder. Celena Slavana is dead. She was murdered under false pretenses. There is no lasting glory for her. There is nothing for her. And now you stand by, watching as this woman commits another heinous act upon yet another living soul. Is that what you truly believe?"

He could see the effect his words were having on some of the people gathered before him. His hope began to rise as he saw the seeds of doubt and confusion taking root in their eyes.

"Listen to the sounds around you!" The congregation turned their heads, suddenly becoming aware of the sounds of the storm raging beyond the walls of the chamber. "Does that sound like the voice of a pleased god? Huixtocihuatl controls the rain-god Tlaloc. Tlaloc would not open the heavens if Huixtocihuatl did not wish it. You were tricked by a truly evil being," he continued "She wants your souls! Do not give in to her lies. I have been sent to warn you. Listen to the voice of the Rain-God! Tlaloc knows what is in your hearts!"

"No more!" Magdalena shrieked. She looked at Eleazar who quickly crossed to Blair, cuffing him across the face. The detective lost his tentative balance and fell to the hard earth. Without the use of his hands to break the fall, he tried to twist to allow his shoulder to take the brunt of the impact, but the drug in his system made his reaction slow and his head connected solidly with the ground.

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

It was less than four minutes when Jim pulled his pickup to a stop at the perimeter of the police barricade. Jumping from the cab, he hurried through the rain to where Simon and Detectives Rafe and Brown had just exited the church and now stood huddled under the meager protection of an overhang.

"What have we got?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the driving rain.

"Nothing," was the captain's terse reply. "There are signs that the church has been lived in, but there's no sign of Blair or the Solis'."

"They have to be near here!" Jim argued, his eyes searching the darkness for some hint of his guide. He knew that Blair was close. He couldn't explain how he knew, he just did. "The warehouse where we found Celena Slavana's body, it was close to this area, right?" At Simon's nod he continued. "I don't think they're going to stray too far from this neighborhood. They've got these people under some kind of spell. They feel safe here. They're not going to leave their protected zone." As he spoke he turned in a circle, carefully turning his senses up. He knew he was leaving himself wide open and at the mercy of the storm, but the fear in his gut had been steadily increasing in intensity and he knew that time was running out. He had to find Blair soon.

A scent caught his attention and he quickly turned the dials down on the other senses, concentrating on his sense of smell. Jim inhaled deeply, momentarilly surprised at the easily recognized scent that wafted just beneath the damp smell of the rain.

Smoke.

Jim followed the scent around to the back of the church. The rain pelted down on him and he used the slick feeling of the water against his skin to anchor him as he focused on the smoke. The trail led him to a patch of ground about twenty yards from the back door of the old church. Jim turned up his sight and was rewarded with a faint glow from a well hidden trap door underneath the tangle of weeds and rocks.

"Here!" he shouted, motioning for the others to join him. He began to tug at the door, surprised when it flew up on well oiled hinges. The door opened onto a crude staircase carved from the earth that descended about fifteen feet into the darkness. Turning up his sense of sight, Jim lead the way down the slick stairs, once again anchoring himself with his sense of touch as his fingers slid across the cool, damp earth of the walls. He could hear Simon directly behind him but his attention was grabbed by a faint but familiar voice which echoed from somewhere up ahead. A smile touched his lips as he heard his partner proclaim himself a shaman and messenger from the rain-god. He used to worry about Blair's inability to protect himself in a fight. But he had learned that the young man's quick mind and vast intelligence was more than a match for most criminals that they encountered. Where he was reluctant to use force, he was able to use imagination and ingenuity to gain the upper hand in a situation. It was a talent that had proven very useful over the years, as it was now.

Blair's voice was interrupted by a woman's harsh command. Focusing his hearing, he could discern his partner's accelerated heartbeat from among the many gathered in the small room ahead. He motioned quietly for the others to take up positions on either side of the opening to the chamber and burst through, gun drawn just in time to see Eleazar Solis swing a powerful blow that connected with Blair's left cheek.

"Police! Freeze!"

Magdalena Solis glared at the intruders, her hands still holding the large knife. She raised the knife above her head and turned her attention to the motionless form of Hector Ramirez who lay on the altar before her.

"Drop it!" Jim ordered.

She smiled at him and shrieked, bringing the knife down in a sudden movement.

Jim fired, the sound of the discharge echoing loudly in the small room.

Magdalena Solis jerked, the knife sliding from her suddenly slack hands to fall harmlessly to the ground. She slowly looked up, an expression of shock on her face, locking eyes with Jim. The hard hatred in her eyes marred the beauty of her young face causing the detective to shudder at the insanity housed in the dark pools. Slowly, her eyes lost focus and she slumped forward across Hector's inert form before tumbling down to the hard earth below.

"NO!" Eleazor screamed as he saw his sister fall. His eyes turned toward Ellison, whose concerned gaze flickered to Blair's still form on the ground beside Solis. Reading the detective's emotions, Eleazar smiled, fluidly pulled a knife from his belt and drove it down toward the young detective's chest.

The bullet caught him in the neck, pushing him back against the wall, his eyes registering the truth even as he struggled to draw breath. The knife fell from his hand and his body slid down the wall. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Simon and the other detectives had followed Jim through the opening and now stood surveying the scene before them. Most of the people gathered stared back through shell-shocked eyes, not really understanding what they had just witnessed. Simon was sure that when they were all examined, they would find traces of marijuana and peyote in the blood of these people. That didn't excuse what they had allowed to happen, but it sure as hell helped to explain how it could happen.

Jim left the small congregation in Simon's hands and moved across the room to Blair. The young man lay still against the damp earth, his face already bruising from the blow Eleazar Solis had delivered. Jim cut the ropes that held his partner's wrists and ankles, careful of the torn, tender flesh underneath. Gently he rolled Blair onto his back, checking him for any injuries. Satisfied that the young man was in no danger, he placed a hand on Blair's forehead and leaned over the still form.

"Blair? Can you hear me, Chief?"

A low moan and a furrowing of Blair's brow made Jim sigh in relief and he continued his litany of words. "That's it, partner. You're okay. Come on back, buddy."

Blair elicited another low moan and attempted to open his eyes.

"That's it, partner. Everything's okay." He smiled as Blair's dark blue eyes tried to focus on him. Jim could tell from the dilation of Blair's pupils that he had also been given the drug that seemed to be effecting the rest of the congregation. "Just take it easy, Chief," he soothed. "It's over."

"Jim, man, I don't feel so good." Blair squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed convulsively.

"You don't look so good either, Junior," Jim said, smoothing the curls back from Blair's sweaty face.

"Hector?"

Jim glanced up toward the front of the room where Hector Ramirez was now sitting, supported by Detective Rafe. He held one hand to his head as Rafe spoke to him softly.

"He's fine. I'd say he's going to have a headache to rival yours in the morning, but he'll be okay. You did good, partner."

Blair smiled at the compliment before closing his eyes and slipping back into a welcome oblivion.

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

Simon Banks opened the door of the darkened hospital room and quietly slipped inside. He walked softly to the bed and ran a practiced eye over the young man lying quietly under the sheet. Blair lay on his side, breathing softly. His dark durls fanned out across the pale blue pillow case, his face and body relaxed in a deep sleep.

"He's okay."

The whisper came from the other side of the bed and Simon looked up into Jim's tired eyes. He wasn't surprised to see the detective at his partner's side, he had just hoped that Ellison would have gone home for the night and gotten some rest himself. Jim stifled a yawn and turned his head, his expression softening as he watched Blair's peaceful face.

"The drug has pretty much run its course. The doctors wanted to keep him overnight because of the concussion."

"He did good, you know," Simon offered, also turning his attention back to the sleeping young man. "He kept his cool under fire and very probably saved Hector Ramirez' life. Not bad for a first day."

Jim nodded his agreement, a tinge of pride in his tired eyes. "He came through, Simon. Just like he always does." He placed a hand on Blair's head and softly stroked the curls. "I told Blair that he was the best cop I've ever seen. And the best partner I could have asked for. I meant that, Simon. He may be a full fledged cop now, but nothing's really different. He's still exactly what he was before - my partner."

Simon smiled. It wasn't every day you saw Jim Ellison open up like he had just done. He watched for a few moments as Jim's eyelids drooped then closed, finally losing their battle with exhaustion. He chuckled softly at the sight before him. Ellison, asleep in the chair, his arm stretched out in front of him, closed protectively around the smaller hand of his sleeping partner.

The Sentinel protecting his tribe - or the most important part of it - as it should be. As it always will be.

"The more things change," Simon whispered. "The more they stay the same."

The End

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