Author's Notes: No profit, copyright laws bent but not broken; beta'd by the generous Arianna, remaining errors are mine

Spoilers: Warriors; TSbBS; Blair is now a detective

Warnings: Adult themes; language and mild violence - Rated R

The Touch

by Roslyn

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

Friday, 4:00 P.M.; Cascade PD Headquarters

Jim Ellison gently applied a Band-Aid to his partner's scraped elbow. The minor injury had been inflicted during their weekly gym session, where the ex-Ranger was helping his smaller partner learn strategies for managing larger opponents out in the field.

"Way to go, man," Blair Sandburg winced dramatically, hoping to evoke enough sympathy to get out of cooking dinner that night in their shared loft apartment.

Despite an undeniable twinge of guilt, Jim wasn't fooled for a second. He'd seen Blair break bones with barely a whimper to avoid alarming his overprotective roommate. "You'll live - and it's still your turn in the kitchen tonight, 'Camille'." He forced a laugh. "Besides, I thought you knew how to bounce!"

That was the way of it. Laugh and hide the concern from yourself, as well as others. Jim acknowledged this in an infrequent bout of introspection regarding his role as 'Blessed Protector' to the younger man. He ruffled the profusion of curls escaping the leather tie at Blair's nape, pausing at the surge of peace and comfort that the touch elicited. Like a reflex, thought Ellison, loathe to lose that link. He broke it off abruptly a moment later as Officer Halloran's overly loud voice was heard across the locker room, no doubt by design.

"That's Ellison patching up his boy." The snide remark was directed to the hapless rookie who had been partnered with the bigot. The rest of the exchange was delivered 'sotto voce' and Jim dialed up his hearing a bit to catch the rest of the gossip being exchanged. Blair guided Jim in the use of his genetically enhanced sensory abilities, most often through touch and voice. Despite his unconscious tendency to touch Sandburg frequently, the older man remained self-conscious about being cued via touch in public. Even in private, he felt uncomfortable taking the emotional comfort that always accompanied the tactile cues. A sterile upbringing by a cold, domineering father had emphasized that deriving emotional satisfaction from physical contact of any sort was inappropriate between males. This early training was daily reinforced in the alpha-male climate of the Cascade Police Department.

Intellectually, Jim was aware of the ridiculousness of that prejudice but still retained a sense of wrongness about the issue on a visceral level. As it was, rumors abounded concerning the partners. Eyebrows rose and elbows jostled ribs whenever the two were observed in close physical proximity out in the field. Typically, Jim didn't give a damn whether or not anyone thought he was gay. He didn't have any problems with the sexual orientations of consenting adults or feel his heterosexuality conferred some higher moral status upon him. He had never inquired into Blair's past experiences, although the kid's exploits since partnering with Jim demonstrated a vast interest in the female of the species. The nature of the conflict remained elusive and seemed to be troubling to his Guide. Well, Blair was a cop now and would have to deal with it. Not everyone was a 'touchy-feely' type of person ....

Ellison stalked off while Blair, momentarily bereft at the sudden break in contact, watched Jim's retreat with rueful understanding. He had no clue as to how to resolve his friend's conflict but it was becoming a real detriment to the Sentinel-Guide relationship. It certainly set them apart from other types of relationships but Jim was always one to cling to old habits. Perhaps if this could be categorized as novel territory, Jim might be willing to investigate the issue more objectively? Blair finished changing as he mulled over the possibilities.

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

Friday, 9:00 P.M.; The Loft

Sandburg, sans shoes, was comfortably ensconced upon Ellison's bed as he watched Jim pack a bag. The senior detective was going to spend the weekend in Seattle at the annual conference on 'Advances in Ballistics'. Rafe would be accompanying him on this particular occasion.

"Don't forget your good suit for the banquet Monday night, although the closing night dinner at that cop-fest doesn't deserve such a distinguished title."

"Are you still griping about it having been a working dinner last year?"

"Jim, passing around armor-piercing bullets over good china and crystal wine goblets has got to be one of the worst abuses of a communal dinner table in the annals of human history."

"Thank you for that anthropological assessment of cop gatherings, Professor." There was no sting attached to that appellation since their lawyer had the lawsuit against Rainier well in hand. The awarding of Blair's Ph.D. was pretty well guaranteed, based upon his alternative dissertation topic. They both looked forward to the day it was formally granted despite Blair's threats of dire consequences should his friend start calling him 'Doctor Sandburg'. Jim doubted his pride in his partner's achievements would allow him to forego that pleasure, threats or no threats. "All cultural anomalies aside, I need to study these things if I'm going to be able to properly assess a crime scene with my senses."

Jim blushed as he suddenly recalled how he had 'zoned' on the visual markings of one brand of ammo at that last dinner. A change of subject was definitely in order here. "I still don't know why you aren't coming with me. Simon said something about it being Rafe's turn and that the departmental budget wouldn't stretch to a third or fourth this year." Simon had accompanied the partners on last year's meeting and been required to field questions about whether his senior detective was prone to epileptic seizures. The Captain had made vague references to allergies to cold medicines, leaving Blair to follow up with the miscreant under the heading of 'Sentinel Business'. Blair had done so and eloquently, as Jim's contrite appearance around the Bullpen over the next few days indicated.

The Guide acknowledged that 'zoning', the loss of ability to integrate multi-sensory input when concentrating intensively upon a single sense, was a fact of life for sentinels. However, for Jim to risk it simply because he was reluctant to ask for assistance in a public place, was a felony offense in the 'Guide book'. Since Blair basically wrote the 'Guide book', who was to nay-say him? Jim claimed the lack of additional, objective evidence by other authors ought to cut him some slack in such matters. Blair just laughed and reminded him that it was always a pain to take a course when the professor teaching it turned out to be the author of the assigned text book. He further teased Jim with the unhelpful offer to revisit these issues if he was successful in finding another authority on the subject.

"Which reminds me, Sentinel!" Blair began sternly as he fully recalled last year's events.

"I know Chief, no zoning. I'll arrange to take home samples of the new stuff and we can study them together, okay?" Blair appeared satisfied with this plan and dropped the subject, only to have the tables turned with himself settled squarely on the 'hot seat'.

"Now, I'll only be gone three days. You will behave yourself now, right?"

"Hey, I am not a kid here. Sheesh, you'd think I hadn't spent half my childhood unsupervised."

"Oh, I know you grew up totally without limits. That's why I have to keep reminding you that you don't have wings, so stay close to the ground until I get back."

A look of pure innocence was directed at him. "You know that I'm afraid of heights, Big Guy. I'm not planning to climb any trees." Blair easily ducked the swat aimed at his head and got ready to deliver the bad news to his overprotective roommate. He took a deep breath and Jim tensed, knowing he was about to hear why his partner wasn't making the expected fuss about their weekend separation. He'd certainly complained to Simon about it and was slightly miffed that Blair had not objected more strongly himself.

"Well," Blair began his confession, "I've been meaning to tell you about a new assignment I'm supposed to prepare for this weekend. Vice needs some 'fresh blood' for a new sting and I'm going to adopt a cover as a cross-dressing hooker."

"This isn't the Marcus case, isn't it? The guy cutting up hookers who won't affiliate with a pimp?"

At Blair's nod of confirmation, Jim's face darkened. "Absolutely not! I'm calling Simon right now."

"Hold it right there! You are not my captain so don't mess with my assignments."

The argument went on, becoming unusually heated. Blair won a stay from Ellison's active interference since the operation wouldn't actually commence until after Jim's return. However, the parting was an angry one with harsh words exchanged.

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

Tuesday, 10:00 A.M.; Captain Banks' Office

"What did Jim have to say about it?" The cigar, unlit in deference to municipal anti-smoking policies, vibrated briefly between Captain Simon Banks' lips.

Blue eyes widened in protest as frustration warred with an instinct for self-preservation. Blair inwardly debated the wisdom of demanding clarification as to how many commanding officers were in charge of 'Major Crimes'. He settled for standing at attention and adopting excessive formality in phrasing his complaint. That was always a clear indication, to those who knew the easy-going young man, that he was royally 'pissed off'. "I believe it is your decision to make, Sir, and that Jim will fall in line with your judgment."

It was a universally accepted concept that James Joseph Ellison considered himself the main judge of what constituted acceptable risks for one Blair Sandburg. However, by appealing to Simon's absolute sense of control over his squad of detectives, Blair hoped to quash his Captain's frequent, if grudging, acquiescence to Jim's self-proclaimed authority. It had become an ongoing bone of contention for the rookie detective, since his appointment to the squad straight out of the police academy.

Simon digested this, recognizing it as a blatant attempt at manipulation. Very little escaped the notice of the astute, elder statesman of detectives. He weighed his options in an effort to balance his right to determine the duties assumed by his staff and the desire to avoid ticking off the volatile Ellison senses - most pointedly, his 'sense' of responsibility for his Guide. Simon also acknowledged, unofficially of course, Blair's understanding of Jim's capabilities in the utilization of his highly enhanced senses.

On the other hand, Simon knew that both men worked most efficiently as a team, under his tight discipline. He restrained both from foolhardiness but also balanced out their tendencies to overprotect one another. These men were linked by ancient ties enabling two gifted individuals to jointly 'guard the fold'. Nonetheless, the realities of modern law enforcement dictated that a third party, ('Guide' to the 'Guide'?), was essential in these matters. Simon elected himself to that office.

Banks sat and stared at Blair until the young officer shifted uneasily. He refrained from grinning at the ease with which that maneuver was accomplished and repeated his original question. The answer was of interest even if it was not a determining factor in this case. "What did Jim have to say?"

"Simon ... uh, Captain, you know Jim hates my going undercover in any capacity. This should have no bearing upon my assuming that part of a detective's duties. Besides, I'm more in danger from those Neanderthal cops in the local bars than from the perps. You ought to see my bruises from being pinched!"

"Try removing your disguise next time you go off duty." Simon stifled a chuckle at the memory of Sandburg shoving a fellow officer who'd grabbed the kid's dress-clad ass after tossing back a few. Blair grinned impudently, hoping he had distracted Simon from his current concerns. Banks didn't buy it, adding crankily, "And I do not want to see your bruises!"

It did not take superior hearing for the sound of Jim's arrival at the Bullpen to penetrate the glass partition of Simon's office. Blair sighed as the less than dulcet tones of an aggravated Sentinel came through, loud and clear. The clipped phrases directed to Rhonda demanded entrance to the inner sanctum. He was ushered inside with some alacrity. There was no point in keeping Ellison out of any meeting involving 'the kid'.

Simon knew Jim would arrive ready to chew nails. Rafe had phoned yesterday from the conference to warn him that Jim had been fully apprised about Blair's weekend in training with the members of the Vice squad. The angry Sentinel had contacted one of his former 'buddies' from that department during a conference break. Simon doubted that any of those cops had been 'buddies' with the irascible Ellison during the early days of his PD affiliation. He was equally certain that any one of them would be happy to gloat about his 'boy' perfecting his cross-dressing skills. Only Blair appeared unfazed by the rumors that were finally starting to get Ellison's goat.

"Good timing," Banks remarked, now prepared to finalize this assignment with his top team.

Ellison made a dead set for the large desk. He didn't need to visually check for Sandburg's presence. Blair's heartbeat had been in the forefront of the auditory signals Jim first sought upon entering the Bullpen. The steady rhythm relaxed him slightly, despite the belligerent stance he displayed before his boss. Jim was acutely aware of a strong urge to touch Blair after their three-day separation, as if to reestablish their bond. He clamped down on the urge but was suddenly gratified and comforted by his Guide's hand gripping his shoulder.

"Hey, Jim. Good to see you, man." Blair's welcoming smile triggered an answering grin that was immediately recalled in favor of presenting his captain with a grave expression.

"Captain, it was my understanding that the pimps who are disfiguring hookers in this territory are checking the girls first to verify their sexual identity. Sandburg can't pass that physical!"

Banks smiled dangerously. "Good morning to you too, Detective Ellison. Believe it or not, captains are trained in gender identification."

Blair let out an appreciative snort at the sarcastic remark. Further reactions were effectively squelched when he became the recipient of twin glares. He interested himself in the examination of a poster on the wall while this conversation continued. Nevertheless, his hand remained on Ellison's shoulder and he knew both of them were gaining reassurance from the contact after their quarrel and separation.

Banks continued, "You know the female Vice cop we sent in was killed when they apparently recognized her. We have plans to send in a cross-dressing hooker, establish his popularity with a show of continuous pickups at high prices and see if the perps will want to add a male to their stable. Since we can't risk a wire, your ears, Jim, will be needed to monitor any attention drawn to Sandburg from these creeps."

"So why aren't the Vice guys handling it?" Ellison was the only guy Banks knew who could snarl in respectful tones, making it hard to reprimand him. The military training, no doubt.

Blair's grip tightened a bit as he fielded that question. "The savaging those girls go through, along with the murdered cop, pushed these hooker assaults up into our league." Nothing caught the undivided attention of the PD like a cop killer.

Banks picked up the ball. "Also, we can't risk Marcus having profiles on the rest of the Vice squad's personnel. That is a likely scenario with such a well-organized group. You, Jim, will be Blair's back-up while he works with Vice to attract the pimp's attention." Simon set the seal on this joint assignment, noting the older man's relief at being ordered to protect his partner officially.

Blair felt, rather than saw, Jim's release of tension through their physical link. He felt Jim's puzzled gaze upon him as the man became aware of the unintentional communication and moved away slightly, in rejection of that link. The rookie officer sighed, aware of Jim's ambivalence. Blair's upbringing outside of conventional groupings, in addition to his training in observing human behavior in all its variations, allowed him to accept the oddity of their relationship without regard for cultural taboos. He was prepared to cut Jim some slack while pushing him subtly toward an ultimate acceptance of their bond. The recent separation certainly seemed to have reinforced Jim's need for their nonverbal interactions.

Simon had also been curious to see the effects of separation upon these two men. Jim had, of late, been observed taking his partner for granted. As expected, Jim had resisted dispensing with Blair's company on this trip. Blair had been mollified to find his own time would be spent training for his first undercover assignment as a detective. He was more than willing to ignore the disrespectful attitudes of the jaded crew in Vice. Blair spoke of expecting some of the hazing suffered by any new arrival in a 'closed society', but Simon knew it reflected far more than simple initiation rituals. Now, Jim seemed torn between eminent satisfaction in being reunited with his Guide and revulsion at feeling that same relief. The Captain exchanged meaningful glances with Blair, conveying his expectation that the rookie would 'fix' this problem, ASAP. Blair wished he knew how to comply with that silent order.

Blair returned everyone's attention to current matters with a single question. "Who will watch Jim's back while he is concentrating on me?" The diplomatically phrased question obviously referred to the prevention of 'zone-outs'.

"Megan and I will take turns on the stakeout with Jim, once you have drawn sufficient notice to yourself. Several successive nights of intense interest should do it, with 'Johns' we'll supply from various departments unknown in Marcus' circles. In the meantime, you bring Jim up to snuff on the perps we're after. By the way, I saw you yesterday. Get some pantyhose without runs in them, for heaven's sake. Have a little pride, Sandburg!"

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

A rising star among pimps, Kenneth Marcus was disfiguring hookers who worked Cascade's east side without affiliation. The other pimps had no objection to the removal of successful prostitutes working outside of established 'stables'. Marcus was doing them all a favor, although that enterprising young man would certainly encroach upon their territories at some point. For the present, it made sense to sit back and enjoy the fruits of someone else's labors.

Blair was to be seen scoring multiple 'Johns' each night for a week, in order to attract Marcus' attention. Jim seemed unusually anxious about the assignment and the stoic ex-Ranger didn't exactly exude grace and charm under normal circumstances. He was most concerned with being able to identify the 'soldiers' belonging to that kingpin before they tried to put a stop to Blair's invasion of their territory. The killing of a Vice cop set the seal on the department's determination to get Marcus out of the picture for good. It also set the seal on 'Blessed Protector' overdrive, and led to a tug of war between Jim and Simon in determining the degree of independence Blair would actually have in performing his undercover tasks.

Blair wanted this assignment. However, being 'the rope' in this tug of war was bound to become a major pain in the ass.

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

Saturday, 4:00 P.M.; The Loft

Jim and Blair had slept very late and enjoyed a quiet lunch together. They would be working odd hours until this assignment was over. Finally getting around to his daily shave, Jim yelped painfully and grabbed the styptic pencil for the third time. "Damn it, Sandburg! Did you use my razor on your legs again?"

"Sorry, Jim. I needed a sharp blade to avoid a razor burn on my thighs. You have no idea ... "

"You're right there, old son." Jim poked his head out the bathroom door and directed an evil eye at his roommate. "If you ever borrow my razor again, I'll use it to shave your head!"

"Not the hair, man!" Blair cringed in mock terror while his partner cast a dark glance at the younger man's smooth limbs, encased in new panty hose.

"Doesn't do a thing for you, kid." Jim retreated back into the bathroom to complete his torture by dulled blade. Apparently, they'd gone through his whole supply since the kid had taken on this assignment.

"As long as it impresses the pimps. Too bad the days of fishnets are gone." One advantage to living with a Sentinel was never having to raise one's voice to be heard.

"Terrific, a retro Vice cop now." Jim pitched his voice to be heard over the running water.

"Well, they have a slimming effect. My calves are a bit chunky." Blair critically twisted a leg this way and that before the full-length mirror leaning against one wall. The rookie had acquired it in unspoken deference to Jim's discomfort with the way certain fellow officers regarded their partnership. If he dressed at headquarters, the more intolerant would have a field day baiting the already anxious Sentinel, in a manner far beyond the bounds of normal, good-natured teasing. Of course, the neighbors would get an eyeful, but they were used to the strange comings and goings of large, armed men. They no longer looked askance at anything the two of them might be doing. Perhaps. Blair snickered to himself at the idea of someone calling Vice to complain about one of Cascade's finest cavorting with a hooker. No point in sharing that joke with his partner.

Ellison gave up on the idea of putting even the gentlest type of aftershave on his reddened, irritated skin. He tucked in his shirt and considered his partner's apparent lack of concern for their reputation within the department. True, his relationship with Blair was no one's concern but their own, with the possible exception of their commanding officer. However, Jim knew how easy it was for a rotten cop to target a resented fellow officer in the field. Simply coming to their aid a bit late and ... well, heaven help the guy who failed Sandburg out there on the streets.

Jim entered the living room, his face decorated with bits of toilet tissue. He watched his partner with reluctant amusement. The young detective appeared 'lost' in contemplation of his 'feminine side'. As usual, Blair was fascinated by the cultural implications of his current assignment and a paper would likely be forthcoming when it was over. After fingering his still stinging shaving wounds, Jim reached out in passing to swat the mini-skirted butt. Startled, Blair raised affronted blue eyes as he was offered some unsolicited fashion advice.

"Drop your new cop-type snacking habits, if you want to avoid developing a 'doughnut derriere'. You don't want to be submitting receipts for control top panty hose - very humiliating."

Noting the nicked, raw skin on his Sentinel's face from the dull razor, Blair forgave Jim his small revenge and immediately went out onto the balcony. Heading into the kitchen to serve up dinner, Jim called out, "No need to jump, Chief. It doesn't show yet!"

"Don't get smart with me, man. I hold in my hands the cure for what ails you." Blair returned with some leaves wrested from one of the plants he kept as part of an interest in naturopathy. "Aloe leaves. I promise it will feel good on your skin."

Replacing the cover on the pot of chili he had prepared, Jim sat obediently for the first aid. The leaves turned out to be remarkably soothing, as was Blair's manner of applying them. Blair registered a distinct lack of resistance to his touch. Jim gripped his Guide's shoulder appreciatively as they rose to complete the dinner preparations.

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

Wednesday, 1:00 A.M.; Cascade's East Side

It was their fourth night on stakeout and all had gone according to plan, thus far. Unfortunately, the night's 'John' was down with the flu, so it had been decided that Ellison would fill in for him. This was fine with Jim, allowing him to be closer to the action as the time drew near for Marcus' enforcers to investigate the newest hooker to arrive in their territory. The partners were standing on Blair's 'usual' corner, the wet pavement glistening in the reflected glare of the streetlights. They stood in a doorway for protection from the lingering drizzle of an earlier shower.

Appearing to have completed his negotiations with this 'gentleman of the evening', Jim suddenly swept Blair into a tight embrace. He kept his face hidden in Blair's shoulder, hiding his identity from a passerby. As he relaxed his hold upon his partner, the well-dressed observer turned to study the pair with frank interest. His expensive suit branded him an outsider in this seedy section of town and a likely member of 'Marcus Enterprises'.

With a barely suppressed sigh of distaste, Jim bent over and planted his lips upon those of his astonished Guide. Frozen in shock, Blair finally realized this fervent embrace was a nearly foolproof way to hide a cop. Few would go to such lengths given the usual hang-ups of those admitted to the ranks of the police department. While Ellison would find it annoying, he would do anything to protect Blair. The anthropologist was tempted to turn this into an even more interesting scene but quickly discarded the mischievous impulse. The brief amusement it would afford him to mess with gender codes in cop society was not worth the price to be paid. Anthropologists were hardy creatures but not immortal. Jim's patience had already been tested sufficiently for one evening.

The likely representative of Marcus' organization finally moved on and Jim lifted his head warily. The pair carefully scanned the now deserted area and decided it was safe to end the night's charade. Blair looked up at his partner with a comically skewed expression. "Eeww, now I know how Lucy felt when Snoopy kissed her. Ugh, Sentinel germs!"

Jim chuckled, relieved his partner had understood the gesture for its intended purpose. "Okay, Charlie Brown. Having sacrificed my virtue in the name of protecting the city, let's get the hell out of here. I want to find some breakfast and some antiseptic mouthwash, not necessarily in that order."

"Funny, man. I know guys who would kill to do that."

"Chief, I know guys who would rather be killed than do that."

Completing their trek down a damp street in the darkest of the predawn hours, they reached the alley where Jim's truck was parked. They climbed into the front seat, requiring the scantily-clad Blair to abandon his modesty in the process. Eyes finally meeting, they both exploded into laughter. Practically choking in the effort to keep down the noise level, Blair gasped out the thought that had him in stitches.

"Okay, how much therapy do we have to go through with the department shrink now?"

Ellison groaned theatrically. "We are not going to confess this to Simon just to get free departmental services for kiss-induced PTSD."

Hilarity-induced tears were starting from Blair's eyes. "Just as well, man. Not enough psychologists in Cascade to resolve this trauma."

"Besides," Ellison finished with a fastidious sniff, "I'm a gentleman and would never 'kiss and tell'."

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

Wednesday, 4:00 P.M.; Police Headquarters

Banks was getting annoyed with his best team of detectives. Sandburg was back in his normal working attire - such as it was - and the pair was engaged in writing up an account of the most recent events in their undercover operation. Ellison was actually laughing as he crumpled up the draft handed him by his nearly hysterical partner. Interestingly, the remains of this rejected report were shoved into a jacket pocket rather than the trash can.

Joel and Henri finally headed over to investigate the source of all this hilarity. They both broke up as well, after being allowed to peruse the wrinkled, discarded paper. It had been dredged up out of Ellison's pocket after some heavy-duty cajoling by Blair. Deciding that playtime was over, Banks exited his office and growled, "I feel a marathon review of old, cold cases coming on!" A respectful silence followed that pronouncement and Simon returned to his office, duly satisfied.

Jim and Blair continued to trade grins and friendly nudges despite a number of disdainful glances from a few of their fellow officers. Blair silently tucked away another clue as to his partner's nature. Clearly, gender issues were not at the heart of his partner's reticence in accepting physical reassurance from another man. In fact, the stories he'd heard about Jim's brief marriage indicated he was no better at accepting various forms of non-sexual comfort from women. Still, this relaxed Jim, content to share the joke about their kiss with close friends, was a promising development. It was quitting time and the pair had the night off. Jim collected his partner with a sweeping motion of his arm around the smaller man's shoulders and led the way to the elevator.

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

Friday, 7:00 P.M.; Cascade's East Side

Blair had barely begun his vigil when two thugs each grabbed an elbow and firmly escorted him to the stretch limousine pulling up to the curb. One of them followed Blair into the back seat, sitting next to him. Opposite was a thin man in an Armani suit. Dark glasses were perched on a beaked nose, jutting out over a wide mouth. The sensual lips parted in a predatory smile.

"I have heard you are called 'Blair', an androgynous name to be sure. Derek, establish the gender for me, please."

A tug on the hair elicited a grunt and the crotch grab a bona fide yelp. "Male, Mr. Marcus, despite the long hair." He then ran his hands efficiently and appreciatively over Blair's body to establish the absence of a wire. He directed a nod of reassurance to the man in charge.

"Thank you, Derek. Well, you appear to be much in demand, sweet cheeks. What do you charge?"

Blair responded cautiously. "I'm expecting a regular shortly - not cruising right now."

"I am not interested personally, although Derek here, might want a taste eventually. You will definitely be working for me or not working at all. You may charge anything you like but will pay me $150 for each night you appear in this area. You should be good for at least that per trick, even in this part of town. We will provide you with protection and a room for your use. Bad form to use the alleys until you are more 'shopworn'. As you can see, we are being reasonable here. If you do well, we can move you into better locations."

"I like being an independent and don't need protection."

"Cascade has no independents any longer, and you can't make a living at this with, shall we say, 150 stitches in your face. We start collecting next Friday and will give you your room key at that time. Until then, you may have trouble attracting a 'john'." He nodded to Derek, who turned and drove a fist into Blair's jaw, followed by a blow to a cheekbone. The lightening fast appearance of a gun in Derek's hand negated any possibility of exacting retribution. Blair subsided, gasping and leaning heavily against the door of the car.

"Well done - bruised, but not bleeding for the present. That was the stick, now for the carrot." Another nod had Derek tossing four one hundred dollar bills into Blair's lap. "This will either tide you over until you heal or serve as one-way air fare to your next destination. Until next week, then."

Derek dragged Blair out of the car and disappeared into his own vehicle, occupied by his waiting partner. Both cars took off and Ellison's truck pulled up scant seconds later. Blair had dropped to his knees, head shaking in an attempt to clear it. Jim bundled his partner in the blanket he kept for Blair to use on cold nights of stakeouts. The injured man was helped into the truck next to Megan, Jim's back-up for the night. A quick check had indicated Blair's injuries did not warrant a trip to the ER. Nonetheless, Jim was torn between taking him home and heading for the Bullpen. It was time to work on a final takedown plan for the persons responsible for his Guide's pain.

Blair decided for all of them, once again in possession of his wind and wits. "Back to the Bullpen, Jim. We have to file this assault and notify Simon that we struck pay dirt. Then we can relax for a bit since Marcus knows I won't be soliciting for at least a week. Oh, I guess we have to turn in my four hundred bucks. Hmm, maybe I am in the wrong line ... "

Jim glanced at his partner, relieved to see a smile returning to the rapidly swelling face. Megan pulled the blanket closer around the shivering rookie and ground her teeth in anger. They completed the ride in silence, the Ellison jaw set in granite.

At headquarters, Blair permitted his Sentinel to provide first aid and comfort. He knew it would help Jim through the frustration of having had to 'stay in the truck'. Megan was relegated to the role of onlooker, as Jim took over the bathing of bruises and the application of cold packs. He blatantly ran his hands over Blair's body to identify any injuries his stubborn partner might have hidden from him. Blair and Megan both took it as a foregone conclusion that a full scan, of the sort that would do justice to an MRI, was in progress.

"Hey Jim, can you tell what I had for dinner too?"

"Yeah, smartass, because I cooked it for you."

"Oh, yeah." No snappy comeback was forthcoming as Blair tried desperately to hide his shudders. "Just cold, man. I swear I'm not badly hurt."

"I know, Chief. You could use something hot and sweet to drink about now. I'll head into Simon's office and commandeer his coffee maker. Makes tea just fine." Jim's hand lingered on Blair's shoulder, oblivious to the fact other eyes were watching. With a nod at Megan, Jim left Blair to her tender ministrations. Megan scurried to get one of the station's blankets and draped it around him. He was grateful for the warmth and began to relax in the familiar, supportive environment. Curiosity returned rapidly.

"How the hell did you restrain Jim from bursting into Marcus' car?"

Megan decided he was up to hearing the full details. "He zoned as soon as you were dragged into the limo and I spent the next couple of minutes shaking and pinching his arms - he'll have as many bruises as you, Sandy." She did not appear in any distress over that. "After assuring him that he had not lost much time, Jim grabbed my arm and said something strange about a child's game. I think he talked about 'piggy-back' or something. Then he swore a few creative phrases, which I must ask him to define, and settled down to narrate the scene for me. He's been wincing since then, a headache I guess. Do you think he's going to survive your additional risks now that you have the shield?"

Blair ignored that question and explained about the pain from spiking senses and the strategy of combining sensory inputs to prevent zones. "It took real guts for Jim to let the situation play out. And Jim doesn't usually swear in front of women so he's really upset."

"Yeah, he did good."

A bellow that would have done justice to the absent Captain, emanated from that office. Jim had evidently decided to wake Simon and share the joys of the evening. Megan and Blair exchanged resigned glances and then quickly scanned the lightly staffed Bullpen for witnesses.

"Figures. Halloran would be here tonight." Blair's swelling jaw was starting to make talking a less desirable activity.

"Yeah, I think these shifts are saved for special ops like ours and the blokes that the brass want out of their way as much as possible."

The subject of their musings rose and approached them, brave in Ellison's absence. "What's all this, Blair? Did you collect that shiner and lip on the job? Maybe it was a ... domestic spat?"

Megan's attempt to rise was aborted when a gently restraining hand was laid on her forearm. Blair looked up at Halloran. He considered that the particular sample of genetic inbreeding before him was nothing more than a catalyst to advance Jim's acceptance of his own nature. Blair was determined not to waste any more time on this yutz. "As you aren't cleared for this, you'll have to excuse us - we're working here."

Halloran stared in disbelief. "Cleared? Your undercover assignment isn't any secret here. If it were, your snazzy outfit there, little Blair, would make it common knowledge. You just dress at home for more kicks with your partner."

Two steaming mugs of tea were firmly set down before Blair and Megan. Jim loomed large next to the gangly Halloran, who backed up instinctively before hastily returning to his own desk. Blair noted Jim's expression was dark enough to re-enact the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. He immediately distracted him with a plea for assistance.

"Hey man. It's cold in this outfit. Can you dig me up an extra blanket?"

Jim glared at the obfuscator. His partner was past the shock of his reactions now and was simply redirecting his attention away from the contemplation of mayhem against a fellow officer. "Never mind that. Simon told us to go home and file the paperwork by email tomorrow. We have a few days off and a meeting on Tuesday to finalize plans for the takedown next weekend." Jim looked somewhat unfocused and Blair realized his vision was on the fritz with a probable migraine on the way. The younger man rose and shucked off his blanket, oblivious to the show he was giving Halloran. He then shepherded Jim into his desk chair. Resting his hands lightly upon Jim's shoulders, Blair softly began uttering the words that would help Jim to normalize his sensory perceptions and reduce his pain.

Halloran's snort and derisive laugh were heard throughout the Bullpen. Jim rose immediately, leaving both Blair and himself reeling, momentarily, from the abrupt cessation of contact. He swayed a bit on his feet and leaned against the wall to recover. Blair's patience reached its end and he approached his Sentinel with an intense, but controlled, fury. The older man looked into his Guide's eyes and was startled by what he saw in those blue depths.

"That is it, man. Saddle up. We are so out of here, now!"

Megan looked on in wonder as Ellison snatched up his jacket and followed the ramrod straight form out the door. Funny how the miniskirt did not seem to lessen Sandy's air of authority as he led the way.

The two men maintained a grim silence as Jim drove them home. Once in the loft, Blair tried once more to guide his Sentinel into normalizing his sensory input levels and was again rebuffed. It was time to address the issue directly, once and for all.

"Sentinel!" Blair barked at Jim in the language of the Chopec people who had begun Jim's training in the use of his abilities. Jim came to full alert at the sound of his shaman's voice. Blair lacked idiomatic fluency in Quechua but had learned much from the tribal leader who had passed the way of the Shaman onto the young Guide. Incacha's journals had given him a further, working knowledge of the language. Shifting languages achieved the goal of removing this discussion from English words that had lost the urgency of their meaning from overuse.

"Do you think it is easy to be a Sentinel?" Blair demanded.

"No!" The response was decisive and angry.

"Do you think it easy to guide the Sentinel?" This challenge was uttered more softly, self-consciously.

Jim looked at the bruised face of his Guide and swiftly crossed the short distance between them. A gentle hand grasped Blair's chin and raised it. Sentinel and Guide locked eyes and comfort was palpable in the physical contact. "No," Jim answered quietly, a wealth of pain and regret in his eyes.

Having obtained the attention of his partner, Blair returned to English for ease of communication in his exhausted state. "Then which of us does not deserve all of the advantages stemming from the connection between Sentinel and Guide? Who benefits from this performance and at what price?"

Jim closed his eyes in anguish at the realization that his sacrifices were also Blair's. Selfish bastard, he thought guiltily of his behavior.

"No!" Blair's sharp voice startled Jim out of his silent self-recriminations. A gentle smile accompanied the next comment. "Not mind-reading, Jim. It's just easy to follow your train of thought and right now the train is about to plow into that ten-foot stone wall you've been building one rock at a time. Our relationship is unknown to any established strata of modern, Western civilization. What will you rely upon to shape our futures? Our natures or the Hallorans of this culture?"

The tension left Jim's body and his answer was given nonverbally. He gathered his Guide in the kind of fraternal embrace that he had never been allowed to share with his own brother. Blair broke out into a brilliant smile at the sudden lack of constraint in their link. His best friend finally seemed to realize he deserved to feel 'connected' with others. Blair also came to the realization that he, himself, finally felt worthy of receiving the trust of the powerful force that was his partner. His own lack of confidence had likely been an impediment to this process all along.

The sensory impressions upon them both were clear and enervating, comforting and confusing. This was going to take some practice and testing to determine how much communication might be possible. Blair suddenly sagged in his fatigue, satisfied with tonight's achievements.

"Our way, Chief." Jim's final comment was uttered quietly as he towed the exhausted younger man to the couch. His migraine vanquished, Jim began to fuss over Blair, who appeared somewhat dazed at his victory. Jim pretended not to notice as his friend's relief moved into a state bearing a closer resemblance to preoccupation. No doubt, the kid was already preparing to move them into this new phase of their partnership, outside the confines of their modern, urban environs. Jim felt content to leave such planning to Blair and concentrated on preparing an herbal brew that never failed to induce a restful sleep for his Guide. Smiling to himself, he thought whimsically that the panther and the wolf would walk together on their own terms.

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

Monday, 10:00 A.M.; Banks' Office

Blair stared at Jim in amazement as the senior detective coolly refused the scenarios being presented to him. Ellison's 'bull in the china shop' approach to life was in full force and Simon was due for an imminent explosion. Blair wondered how he could train his Sentinel in more subtle forms of communication and was forced to acknowledge that it was just as well he'd gotten his shield. It helped to carry a firearm when partnered with a man of Jim's communication style.

"Uh, Captain," Blair intervened diplomatically, "My partner is introducing a new idea for bringing this sting to a close. Why not review as many possible scenarios as we can since Marcus appears to be dealing with me differently than the female hookers we used as informants." His two 'guardians', one by appointment of the Cascade PD hierarchy and the other via more basic, evolutionary determinants, faced off in a confrontation that had been inevitable from the start.

This Mexican stand-off had begun when Ellison flatly refused to permit the original take-down plan of having Blair wait on 'his' corner, for Marcus to make his final approach. That left Marcus with the 'home court' advantage. Simon also felt the risk too great but bridled on principle at Ellison's usurpation of his command prerogatives. Of course, the Sentinel/Guide bond would transcend all other ties but Blair sympathized with Simon's insistence upon departmental protocols. Jim could certainly problem-solve within those strictures but then, well, that was not how sentinels were wired, apparently. On the other hand, Blair was not prepared to risk his safety on the outcome of a power struggle between two powerful personalities. New ground would be broken in developing the working parameters for this particular threesome - and the hell with what Halloran might make out of that concept! Blair smiled to himself, seeking better phrasing for his ideas.

"Glad we're amusing you, Sandburg." Banks waved his unlit cigar in irritation. "Care to share the joke?"

Blair moved closer to his partner's side and gripped Jim's arm firmly. The aggressive stance relaxed immediately. Blair radiated the sense of trust he felt for his well-intentioned guardians. "I hope that my safety will not be threatened by any rigidity in the way plans are being made, as new information becomes available." The calm statement resulted in two faces, generally unaccustomed to sheepish expressions, briefly turning aside. Simon's rational side immediately overcame his command posturing and he sat down, indicating his subordinates should do the same.

Without breaking contact with his partner, Blair hooked the chair to his immediate right with an ankle and pulled it behind him, next to Jim's chair. He sat and tugged Jim down into the adjacent seat. "Captain, Jim, it's my ass on the line, in every sense of the word." Blair's rather crude comment provoked a pair of chuckles and seemed to restore the normal balance of cooperation.

Banks was now conscious of a novel aspect to the contact between the partners. Almost a symbiosis, he thought, dredging up that term from some long-forgotten biology class. Ellison seemed to have dropped some barriers and Sandburg's usual deference to his imposing partner seemed less apparent. No fool, Simon was more than willing to explore the increased effectiveness of such a team. Just as long as he was spared any of the mystical mumbo-jumbo that sometimes went with the package.

"Yes," Banks capitulated, "there appears to be a number of new variables operating here." His listeners heard the larger message behind the statement. "Let's bring in Brown, Rafe and Conner to review all the facts and create a better strategy for the 'take-down'."

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

Tuesday, 8:30 A.M.; the Bullpen

Jim and Blair sat shoulder to shoulder at the morning meeting that began each workday in the Bullpen. The other working pairs were not in such close contact. Still, no one present appeared to take issue with their positions. Conspicuously absent was Halloran, currently on administrative leave pending disciplinary action and transfer. At yesterday's meeting, Ellison, Sandburg and supporting cast had been congratulated on the arrests of Marcus and his subordinates. Jim had gone with Blair, in the guise of another 'pimp', to protest the co-opting of Sandburg's services by Marcus. Consequent threats and the brandishing of weapons, caught on videotape, led to a swarm of Cascade's finest overtaking the perps without a shot being fired.

As they received their 'kudos', Halloran had looked at the two, sitting as they did now, and snarled, "Did you all share Sandburg first?" Prepared for bloodshed, Simon was astonished when Jim only twitched upright in his seat and exchanged meaningful glances with his partner. Blair rested his hand upon the large, tense shoulder and Jim had promptly subsided, allowing his captain to deal with the situation. Halloran finished digging his own grave with a few more jealous, bigoted and insubordinate comments. The rest was history.

Definitely a new era dawning, Simon thought as he covertly watched his staff gather while organizing his notes. Still, evolution was not a swift process and he wouldn't place odds against Halloran surviving any future meetings he might have with Ellison in Blair's absence. A burst of laughter erupted from the Bullpen, under the Captain's indulgent gaze. Blair had made some wise-ass remark to his partner and gotten a gentle smack to the head for his temerity. The expected protest was clearly audible.

"Hey, man! I swear, one day you're going to give me brain damage." Amusement was poorly concealed beneath the faked, aggrieved tone.

"Don't think so, Einstein. For that, I'd have to aim a lot lower!"

Adopting his usual stern expression with some difficulty, Simon strode into the Bullpen to call his people to order.

THE END

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