DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.

Timor Vita, Part One
Kim Heggen


Act I

Oblivious to the predawn chill and the faint mist now filtering down from the still-dark sky, Jim Ellison leaned both elbows on the balcony rail. He had forgotten about the mug of coffee growing cold at his right elbow. Peering into the distance, he focused his eyes on the lazily flapping wings of a seagull. Idly, he adjusted his visual focus until he could pick out each individual feather, see the wings turn and shift as the bird banked into a turn. He felt himself begin to slide into the first stages of that state of extreme concentration that Sandburg referred to as a 'zone-out'. Reluctantly, he forced himself to pull back, to reorient himself to his surroundings.

No, can't risk zoning out anymore. Too dangerous, now. I might stand out here for hours and get hypothermic. He snorted, wryly amused at the idea of becoming hypothermic standing out in Cascade's mild weather. But prolonged zone-outs could be dangerous in and of themselves. Who would know or notice, on his day off, with no one to check on him?

Change, he thought. It sneaks up on us. We can try and try to push it away, snatch at the past with both hands, but we can't make time stand still. I wish -- I wish he'd come back.

I know I've done the right thing, that I can't just do what my instincts tell me to do. My gut is screaming at me that I should go find him and convince him to come back. And if I used the right words, played on his guilt, he just might...

No, I'm doing the right thing.

But that doesn't make it ache any less. It doesn't make me any less... lonely. Something I never thought I'd be.

With a sigh, he turned away from the fog-shrouded view of the city and went in to face the rest of his solitary breakfast.

Eleven Days Earlier

"Jim, this is so totally bogus!"

Stopping in mid-stride, Jim turned to survey his partner. Blair Sandburg stood a few paces behind him, in the middle of the sidewalk.

"Chief, keep your voice down. Those witnesses can probably hear you." Jim threw a glance over his shoulder at the small knot of people standing in the elementary school parking lot. A child's thin wail still rose intermittently from the midst of the cluster.

"So what?" Blair exclaimed scornfully, but at a slightly lower volume. "Jim, the whole concept of the scary stranger who abducts children from playgrounds, that's probably one of the most persistent urban myths in modern America. You know as well as I do that in most cases, children are abducted by people they know." He started walking again, and in a few more seconds they reached the truck. Jim missed a few words of his partner's tirade as he opened his door and climbed inside.

"-- taught them to watch out for Mommy's ex-boyfriend, or dear Daddy who lost the custody decision, instead of the bogeyman, and maybe we'd see less of this sort of thing." Blair snapped his seat belt into place with unnecessary force, then sat back with folded arms. "Now none of these parents are going to let their kids outside for weeks, even though most likely they're safer at the playground than in their own house. Statistically, anyway."

Jim studied his partner out of the corner of his eye as they pulled away from the school. What's eating him? He's been touchier than Simon dealing with his ex-wife. Aloud he said merely, "The little girl said that she didn't recognize the man."

"She's seven years old, man. She was scared. And she described somebody with a beard and glasses. It's almost certainly a disguise; I could whip up that one in a minute."

"Maybe so, Chief." Jim cleared his throat. "You know, it's one thing to play your hunches, but you've got to keep an open mind in this business, see all the possibilities."

Blair muttered something that sounded suspiciously like a rude parody of the Sentinel's words. Jim ignored it, and turned his thoughts inward as he reviewed the case's facts. This was the third child near-abduction in as many weeks that had been reported to the Cascade P.D., and Jim wasn't looking forward to the inevitable media feeding frenzy that would surely ensue after this case came to light. He also preferred not to think about Simon's probable reaction to the whole thing. The Captain of Major Crimes tended to be sensitive to publicity issues, often to the point of what Jim considered to be undue caution. But then, he's the one who ends up dealing with the press, he thought wryly.

They had been called to the scene by the patrol cops who had initially responded to the neighbor's 911 call. It had taken a while to piece the muddled story together, as the child and her friends were just short of hysterical. The girl's mother, who had already arrived, was in even worse shape. She had alternated fits of relieved weeping with bouts of shrieking accusations. Jim had finally given up on getting much information from her and concentrated on the actual witnesses.

As near as Jim could tell from questioning the little girls, they had come to the school yard to play. Today was a teacher's in-service day, and the children had no classes, but the school grounds were a popular location for the local kids to play.

They had been sitting with their Barbie dolls under a tree by the fence when they heard loud snipping sounds. They looked up to see a strange man with a beard and glasses who had just finished cutting a gap in the chain-link fence "with a big pair of scissors," one of the little girls had intoned solemnly. While the girls stood momentarily frozen with fear and surprise, the man had darted in one arm and seized the coat of the girl known as Becky Newcomb. Only the child's quick action of slipping out of her coat and running away had saved her, but unfortunately the suspect had vanished. The children had gone running across the street to a neighbor's house.

Jim shook his head, still puzzled. The other two near-abductions had been similar, one occurring at another elementary school and the other at a city park during a kiddie-league soccer practice. Each had involved a bearded man with some kind of cutting implement. Each time, the child had gotten away in time. Some kind of copycat phenomenon? I just don't know. And why bother cutting through the fence? He could have walked 'round it in twenty seconds and grabbed a kid easily. Doesn't make sense.

With Blair's help, he'd made a careful sweep of the area around the tree and near the hole in the fence. All he'd found, aside from the Barbie clothes scattered by the little girls, was a still-moist wad of used chewing gum. He'd given it a good sniff, noticed that it had an unusual acrid odor, and packed it up to send to the lab. No great insights there.

Blair snorted, breaking his train of thought. "Y'know, it's possible those girls made the whole thing up. Remember the Salem witch trials? Kids can do some strange things when they want attention. And if they saw the news stories about the other two episodes, they'd have had all the information." He laughed, a short bitter sound without any humor. "Good God, their parents have probably been warning them every morning for the last two weeks to watch out for a bearded man who cuts through fences! It could all be group hysteria."

Jim sighed. "Sandburg..."


"Did you decide to be such a pain in the ass when you first got up this morning, or was it more of an after-breakfast sort of decision? Because I'm getting tired of your attitude."

Blair slumped into silence and stared out the window. After a minute or two of this, Jim couldn't resist one more biting comment.

"Hysteria, huh? Harley Spencer's five little victims would beg to differ with you, Chief. And someone cut a hole in that fence, and I doubt it was one of the kids." He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "Some of these bastards are real. You know that, you've met them. You were the one who found Spencer. You were the one that had to watch him almost kill that girl." And you damn near killed him for it, Sandburg.

"Yeah, some of them are real," Blair retorted. "And yeah, most urban myths have a grain of truth in them somewhere." He scuffed at the floor mat with his left foot. "It's just not fair. Whether there's a real Bearded Bogeyman or not, it's the kids who are going to suffer. Scared out of their wits, and forbidden to leave their backyards."

"The innocent suffer, Chief. That's the way it always is."

They made the rest of the drive in silence, Blair staring out the window and Jim driving with exaggerated caution. As they pulled into the station, Blair cleared his throat.



"Sorry, man."

"S'all right."

"Come on, Jim! You've got to give me more to work with here. The mayor's already breathing down my neck on this one."

The two detectives sat in Simon Banks' office. Or rather, Blair sat cross-legged on the conference table, and Jim paced like a caged beast between words of explanation.

That's one advantage of being the junior partner, Blair thought ruefully. I may not always get taken as seriously, but neither do I get yelled at as much when we come up empty-handed.

That thought brought an uncomfortable corollary that Blair shoved mentally away almost as soon as it took form in his mind. Maybe Simon just doesn't expect that much of me. He swallowed and jerked his attention back to the conversation.

"Simon, what more can we do? We've questioned everyone who was involved with each incident. I didn't pick up any extra evidence with my senses. All I could tell was that the fences had probably been cut when the kids said they were. What do you expect us to do, stake out all of the grade schools and playgrounds in town?" Jim resumed his pacing. "No one's been hurt, no one's actually been kidnapped. It just doesn't seem a priority compared with some of the other cases we've got." He stopped and spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "We can't find any connection between the cases besides the M.O. Other than the beard and glasses, the kids haven't been able to give us much of a description. We don't even know for sure if it's the same man."

Blair spoke up from his perch on the table, trying to choose his words more carefully than he had earlier in his arguments with Jim. "The composites don't look that much alike. If you ask me, the poor kids are scared out of their wits by all the warnings they're getting from parents and are jumping at shadows. Maybe this last guy was just a maintenance man or something, or one of the local street people."

Jim grunted. "Now there's a reassuring image to throw out to the parents of Cascade. Better keep that theory to yourself, Chief."

"You really think the cases are unrelated?" Simon poured himself another cup of fragrant coffee.

"Sir, I don't know. They might be, and they might not. But I would bet if we looked through the statistics for the last ten years of incidents like this, we might find that it's just -- just a case cluster of some kind. Maybe the statisticians can come up with something reassuring." Jim wore a pleading look on his face. "We'll definitely need to keep the investigation open, but it would be nice to have the public settle down a bit over this one."

"All right. I think you're on the wrong track, but talk to the stats people, see what they come up with. I'll try to keep the press out of your way. But, Jim?"


"If you come up with any new evidence that we really are dealing with a serial wacko here, any connection between the victims, or possible motivation, you tell me immediately. We will not stand by and watch children put in danger."

"Simon, you'll be the first to know if we find anything."

Jim glanced at his watch. "Come on. Getting chewed out makes me hungry, and I'm not settling for another vending-machine lunch. You up for a bite?"

"Yeah, sure." Blair's answer contained all of the enthusiasm of a child on the way to the dentist.

"Anything sound good?" Jim tried again.

"Whatever, man. Nothing too heavy, I guess."

"Which disqualifies most of what I consider to be food. How 'bout Tino's? You can always get a salad if you're feeling virtuous."


Jim looked sidelong at his partner as they climbed into the truck. Blair looked, well, just sort of droopy and disinterested. For a moment, Jim debated suggesting somewhere else, but he really did have his heart set on an Italian meatball sandwich, loaded with tomato sauce and redolent of garlic. Besides, when he gets moody, it's usually safer just to ignore it and let him come out of it on his own.

The quiet little restaurant was almost empty; at two o'clock most of the lunch crowd had already come and gone. Jim selected a booth, and waved at the elderly proprietor behind the cash register.

"Tino, how's it going?"

"Wonderful, Detective, wonderful. My daughter Anna, she had her baby last week. My fifth grandchild, and the first girl." He bustled over with the menus. "Hold on, I'll show you a picture. She's an angel, a little angel." He headed off to the kitchen, presumably in search of his baby granddaughter's photograph.

"Great, just great," Blair groused. "I wanted a nice quiet lunch; now we're going to get regaled with stories from the proud grandpa."

"A few minutes ago, you were acting as if you didn't want any lunch."

"For once, I'd just like to eat in peace. Besides, Tino's probably so distracted by the arrival of Grandbaby Number Five that he'll get the orders all screwed up. I am not in the mood for any of those weird Italian pickled peppers on my sandwich."

Blair's tirade was cut short by the arrival of the menus and the promised photograph. Jim dutifully admired the picture of the little pink-clad and bow-bedecked newborn, but Blair stared stonily at the menu. After they placed their orders and Tino scurried away, Jim studied his partner quizzically.

"You know, Sandburg, when the people of Cascade are glad to see us, and look upon us with pride, that's a good thing. The Cascade P.D. is well respected, even in this part of town, and we can be proud of that. People like Tino are important to the way we function. It wouldn't hurt you to be a little more sociable."

Blair toyed with his water glass. "That's a laugh, coming from the Hermit of Prospect Street. You, telling me to be more sociable?"

"It's just part of the job. You don't have to like it, you just have to do it." He's right, though. Used to be, I had to rein him in from telling his life story to everyone we met. When did he get so reserved? Jim tried to think of when he had last seen Blair acting more like himself, but was unable to pinpoint a specific day. He was uncomfortably aware that the press of recent cases, all jostling for attention, had pushed more personal matters out of his mind. All this time we've spent together, and I'm still not used to having a partner to take care of. Maybe I'd better talk to him tonight, find out what's wrong. But not here.

They sat in silence until their food arrived, exactly as they had ordered it despite Blair's cranky predictions. Jim gave the meatball sandwich his full attention, savoring the rich sauce and the tender meatballs. There are times when being a sentinel definitely has its compensations.

"Chief, you don't know what you're missing," he said around a mouthful. "Tino even bakes his own bread for these. The day he closes up shop and retires, I'm going to wear black in mourning."

He looked over at his partner, who was picking at a roast chicken panini sandwich with provolone. That looks almost as good as this does. If he isn't going to eat it, I'm staking it out for later. The kid'll bring it along; he hates to waste food.

"You going to eat that or --" Jim stopped in mid-sentence as his hearing picked up snatches of a conversation.

"This place? He ain't got no money. Waste of time."

"That's what you think, dumbass. It's just after the first of the month. The old man's son sends him a check every month around this time, and he cashes it. He'll have a couple housand in that cash register, you can bet on it. You'll get what you need, never fear."

"What?" demanded Blair. "You break a tooth or something? Tino's meatballs not as pure as you thought?" Sandburg's tone was pure acid.

"Shut up, Blair." Jim responded automatically, already moving his hand toward his weapon. "Get up casually, go into the kitchen, and tell Tino to stay where he is. Move it."

"What? Why?"

"Just do it! Now!"

Jim rose nonchalantly from the table and turned to look toward the windows, hoping he could get into position by the cash register before the would-be burglars entered the restaurant. But even as he took a step toward the counter, the door opened and two young men entered.

Strung out, was Jim's thought as soon as he saw them. They're strung out, and looking for drug money. One, a tall skinny boy with greasy blond hair and filthy jeans, was trembling visibly; both he and his shorter, darker companion had the desperate, wild-eyed look Jim had seen on too many faces over the years. Worse, he could smell the acrid metal odor of a handgun. There was nothing more unpredictable than a junkie with a weapon.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jim could see Blair walking down the narrow aisle toward the swinging kitchen doors, his back to the suspects. God, don't let them notice him. Let them think he works here, don't let him get shot in the back. Blair disappeared safely into the kitchen, and Jim turned all of his attention to his adversaries.

As expected, the nervous blond one reached toward his pocket for the gun that Jim knew was there. But the detective saw the motion, and had his own weapon out in a fraction of a second.

"Don't even try it," he growled. But the junkie, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was staring into the muzzle of a loaded gun, reached into his pocket anyway to reveal a loaded 45 mm. revolver.

"Cascade P.D.! Drop it now!" Jim's voice was strong and steady, but the junkie's hand shook with the palsy of withdrawal.

"You idiot!" wailed the shorter one. "It's a cop! Let's get out of here!"

Then Jim heard the sound of the kitchen doors crashing aside, followed by the unmistakable report of a shotgun. In eerie slow-motion, the blond suspect fell backward into the plate glass window, his chest a bloody mess. His companion stood stunned for a partial second, then yelled a few choice obscenities and took off through the door, just as Jim whirled around to face the kitchen.

An angry Tino Vespugi stood in the doorway, shotgun still aimed, with an ashen Blair Sandburg clinging to his arm and apparently trying to drag him back into the kitchen.

"Tino! Drop it, man! You need to drop it! Sandburg, get him back inside, and get that gun away from him!"

Tino's shotgun clattered to the floor, and Jim leapt out the front door in pursuit of the other suspect.

What a mess.

Blair looked around at the shambles of the restaurant. The wounded suspect had been removed by the ambulance, but his blood still spattered the floor and window. Old Tino, shaking with reaction, was seated in one of his booths, talking with one of the patrol cops who had responded to Blair's call for backup.

Poor Tino. He'll have to be charged, probably, with attempted manslaughter, but it's a grey area. They were trying to escape, after all.

After walking casually into the kitchen as per Jim's instructions, still fuming a little at the "Shut up" that had come so easily from his partner, Blair had located Tino. He told the restaurant owner that something was going on and he needed to stay back in the kitchen where he was safe. But the old man had gone berserk, shouting that no punks were going to rob him of his money, and had grabbed the shotgun from where it hung over the back door. Before Blair could stop him, he'd careened through the swinging doors and shot one of the suspects.

I did it all wrong. I should have grabbed Tino and restrained him, cuffed him if necessary, pulled my own weapon on him before things got so out of hand.

In the brief instant before Tino had charged out of the kitchen, he'd pointed the shotgun at an astonished Blair Sandburg, yelling at him to get out of the way. Blair had ducked, only to grab Tino a few seconds later after the shotgun blast had echoed through the building.

Crazy guy. Could've shot me. Could've shot Jim, or that other suspect might have been armed. What a fiasco.

Blair looked up as he saw Ellison's broad figure stepping over the yellow tape barricade in front of the restaurant. Jim looked uncharacteristically grim as he shouldered his way into the room.

"Lost him," he said shortly, and sat down at the table nearest the door. "He had too much of a head start, and then I got caught on the wrong side of a train."

"If the train's gone now, maybe we could try to find him with your sense of smell. We've done that before," murmured Blair, conscious of the other officers present.

"Forget it, Sandburg. He's gone, and it all happened too quickly for me to get any clear impression of his scent." Jim sighed. "We'd be better off trying to figure out how to explain this one to Simon."

Simon didn't yell, didn't bluster. Instead, he remained quiet and dangerously calm while Jim told the story of their encounter at Tino's.

When Jim had finished, Simon stood up and walked out from behind his desk to stand directly in front of them.

"Let me make sure I have this straight, gentlemen. Jim, you had good warning that something -- an armed robbery -- was about to happen. You sent your partner to secure the civilian and keep him out of the way."

"Captain, I didn't know what was happening," Blair protested. "Jim may have known what was going on; all I knew is that he told me to go keep Tino in the kitchen. He didn't say anything about armed robbery suspects." The glance he shot Jim looked accusing.

"Sandburg, I didn't have time for a debate! I gave you an instruction, and I expected you to follow it."

"You had the suspects at gun-point," continued Simon, in that same voice of deadly calm. "Probably, they would have surrendered at any moment."

"Sir, I can't say that for sure," amended Jim. "They were both pretty strung out, and you know how unpredictable junkies can be. I was half-expecting to have to take out the gunman; he looked pretty twitchy. Tino may have saved my life."

"And you," Simon turned to Blair. "You, an armed detective, you were back in the kitchen with this little seventy-year-old man who can't weight more than a hundred and ten pounds. Yet he was somehow able to overpower you, grab a shotgun, and wound a suspect so badly that he's in the ICU and may not survive?"

"Simon, I tried. But..."

"But what? Speak up!"

"But I guess I didn't see him as a threat," Blair explained lamely. "Even when he went for the shotgun, I guess part of me didn't really believe he'd do anything with it. I mean, who would picture Tino as such as hothead? I didn't even think it was loaded."

Uh oh, now that was the wrong thing to say. Jim watched as Simon's complexion turned an interesting shade of purple.

"Detective Sandburg," Simon said, his tone icy. "Perhaps you need to return to the Academy for some supplemental training in the management of an apparently armed suspect! Would you like me to arrange that?" The final phrase was a shout.

"No, sir," mumbled Blair.

Simon stalked back behind his desk and sat down. "The outcome of today's work, Detectives. One grievously wounded suspect. One suspect escaped, on foot, mind you. And one elderly restaurant owner vigilante who will now probably have to face charges. I'd say that just about covers it." He leaned forward. "Gentlemen, we are here to protect the public. Even from themselves." He brought his fist down on the desk. "Ellison, you're dismissed. Sandburg, you stay here."

After Jim left, Simon's face loss its rigidity and his voice grew more quiet. "Sandburg, sit down."

Blair complied, sinking into the nearest chair.

"For the last week you've been snippy, short-tempered and just plain difficult to be around. Your reports, once models of wording and detail, have become incomprehensible, and what's more, whatever is going on with you seems to be affecting Jim. Is there anything else going on, anything you want to tell me?"

Looking up at his captain's face, Blair was surprised to see the deep concern reflected in Simon's eyes. And something else, something that he couldn't quite identify. "No, sir, there isn't. Nothing that you could help with, anyway."

"Then whatever is going on, I expect to you solve it, or end it, or whatever is appropriate. Talk with Jim, call your mother, see a shrink, do something. Or come talk with me, if you need to. I think I know... Well, you're not functioning at full capacity right now, and we need you."

Blair dropped his eyes again and nodded. "I'll do better, Simon. I promise."

For a moment, silence hung in the room. Then Blair heard a creak as the captain leaned forward in his chair. "Blair, you've been with us now, as a detective, for almost a year. Are you happy doing this?"

The unexpected compassion of that question stunned Blair, and he felt his eyes sting with suppressed tears. How do I answer that? Tell him, that I thought I was, but now I'm not so sure?

The 'beep' of the intercom of Simon's phone made them both jump. Rhonda's voice came over the speaker. "Simon, I've got the Chief on line two for you."

"Thanks, Rhonda." Simon moved to pick up the phone, stopped in mid-motion.

"You can go, Sandburg. But we're not finished with this. I want an answer to my question the next time we get a chance to talk."

Act II

Jim looked up just as Blair emerged quietly from Simon's office. Still annoyed at the outcome of events in the diner, and the resultant chewing-out, he gave vent to his frustrations.

"Thanks for backing me up in there, partner," hissed Jim under his breath as Blair came within earshot. "You know, I tried to gloss over your mistakes. It would have been nice if you hadn't tried to pour blame on me in front of the Captain."

Blair walked to his desk, almost stumbling, and sat down wearily with his head resting on his arms. "Not now, Jim. Please. I've got a splitting headache, and I'm feeling about as low as road-kill right now anyway." He sighed. "Poor Tino. I hope he gets off easy."

"You know, you're not very satisfying to have an argument with, Chief." Jim felt his anger leave him at the sight of his partner's miserable face. What did Simon say to him? He looks terrible.

"Sorry. I'll try to come up with a good nasty comeback. Maybe by Thursday," joked Blair feebly.

"Hey, Ellison!" Jim's head swung around at the sound of his name. A grinning Henri Brown was approaching his desk. "I hear you've been recruiting for us!"

Jim frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"That little Italian restaurant owner who saved yo' sorry behind! Only problem is, he's past retirement age, now, isn't he?"

"Shut up, Henri," responded Blair, weakly.

"Hey, Hairboy! Heard the old guy got the drop on you! Be careful, my man, I hear Simon's gonna send you out to all the retirement centers now, just for practice on handling the elderly." Brown laughed at his own joke, and thumped Blair on the shoulder.

"That does it." Jim stood up so fast he knocked his desk chair over. "Detective Brown, I believe you have something better to do? If you don't, I'm sure I can find something."

"All right, all right, don't get your shorts in a twist. Can't a man make a joke or two?" Henri moved off. When he was out of earshot, Jim turned around and picked his chair up, then sat back down in it for lack of any better idea.

"Used to be, if I barked, they ran away whimpering," grumbled Jim. "Now they give me lip. It's not funny. It's your fault, Sandburg."

"My fault?"

"Brown, Rafe, Joel, all of them.They see what you get away with, and now they figure they can do the same." He picked up the report he was supposed to be working on, and started to read through his narrative of the events at Tino's. "Hey, Sandburg?"


"Don't make any plans for tonight. We need to talk."

Jim headed for the shower as soon as they got home, so Blair took himself to the kitchen to cook. A peace-offering. What can I throw together here? He opened the fridge and began placing possible dinner ingredients on the counter. Let's see: one red bell pepper, only slightly shriveled, half an onion, some Parmesan cheese. And I think there's still a couple of cans of tomatoes in the cupboard. When Jim emerged half an hour later, a pot of bright red sauce bubbled merrily on the stove while Blair added pasta to boiling water with more than his usual concentration.

"Thanks, Chief. That smells good." Jim picked up a spoon, stirred the sauce.

Blair looked up, smiled wanly. "Cooking helps me to settle down after a bad day."

"Sandburg, you looked like hell when you came out of Simon's office. What did he say to you?"

"It's not really relevant." Blair leaned over the pasta pot, stirring the long strands of linguini to keep them from sticking together.

"Don't be so damned evasive. What did he say?"

"Jim." Blair put down the long chopstick he was using to stir the linguini. "You said you wanted to talk tonight. All right, I've decided that's inevitable, and I'm uncomfortably aware of the fact that we might end up saying some unpleasant things to one another. I'm even somewhat resigned to it. But first I want to cook a good, satisfying meal, and eat it without having you grill me over a slow fire. If that means that we eat this dinner in total silence, then so be it."

Jim dropped the wooden spoon back into the sauce. "Fine. I'll be upstairs. Call me when you're ready for your silent meal."

"Jim," Blair said softly as his friend and partner stomped up the stairs.

Jim, I'm sorry. But you're going to be in for a bit of a shock.

The meal proceeded in typical fashion. In spite of the unpleasant day, Jim was keenly aware that he'd only had part of his lunch, and he was able to put away a surprising amount of food. But I could eat if the world was ending around me.

Blair, on the other hand, placed only a small amount of pasta on his plate and toyed with it more than he ate it. Finally, after Jim had finished and carried his own plate to the kitchen, Blair apparently surrendered. Covering his uneaten food with plastic wrap, he placed it in the refrigerator along with the Tupperware-covered leftovers.

Jim waited at the table. "Come on, Sandburg, quit stalling in there. I want to talk to you."

"Oh, yes, mustn't keep the interrogator waiting." Blair shut the refrigerator door with a slam that shook the ancient little appliance with a loud rattle.

"That does it," Jim said tightly. "Sandburg, what the hell has gotten into you the last few days?"

"Geez! I'm sorry, I shut the door a little hard and scared your precious antique refrigerator. It won't happen again." Blair stalked out of the kitchen and around to one of the living room couches.

"That is not what I'm talking about!" Jim smacked one hand into his palm. "You've been spacey, sloppy, careless, moody --"

"Oh, so it's my fault that the suspect got away, and my fault that Tino decided to play Rambo, and you're pissed off at me! Is that what this is all about?"

"-- and your attitude, to use your expression, sucks." Jim stopped for breath. "Sandburg, you have been impossible to live with this week, and I think I have a right to know why. I want to help, if I can, but you've got to give me something to work with here."

Blair was silent; tilting his head back he stared at the ceiling. He said nothing for several minutes, and his face went bland and expressionless. "Sorry," he said at last. "You're right. I've been difficult. I'll shape up."

Jim felt another, more perverse twinge of irritation, this time at Blair's response. Who does he think he is, giving in so easily? I was just getting warmed up. C'mon, Chief, let me say all of those other things I've got stored up. He looked hard at his partner, and felt his attitude softening slightly. "Sandburg, you're not... Oh, hell. Never mind."


"Just never mind." Jim walked to the kitchen, opened the door of the refrigerator, and snagged the Brita pitcher to pour himself a glass of cold water.

"What?" persisted Sandburg.

Jim seated himself on the couch next to his partner. "You're so moody and distracted," he observed sourly, "you're not even any fun to argue with."

Sandburg shrugged. "Sorry."

"Chief... maybe we're just spending too much time around each other," Jim said suddenly, after a few minutes of silence. "Maybe we need a break from each other." Staring at his water glass, he plunged ahead, not sure himself as to where he was headed with this train of thought. "The way we've been bickering with each other these last few days, and the trouble we've had trying to work in sync... Frankly, Sandburg, it reminds me of the way Carolyn and I acted just before we separated. I always thought --"

He meant to go on and say that he'd always thought if he and his ex-wife had taken a few more much-needed breaks from each other rather than living in each other's back pockets, maybe their marriage would have lasted longer. But some tiny, half-heard sound made him stop his scrutiny of the chipped water glass and turn his head to look at his partner.

Well, his last comment had certainly got a reaction. Blair sat with both hands over his face, and as Jim watched the younger man seemed to crumple, to fold inward upon himself somehow without twitching a single muscle. He made no further sounds, just sat there with a stillness that made Jim's heart lurch painfully. Feeling both guilty and obscurely annoyed (He hadn't been that harsh, had he?) he reached over and punched Blair's shoulder slightly.

"Hey, Chief, forget it. It's okay. We've both had a bad day. Let's go out and get a sundae or something. You need it, you hardly ate any dinner. My treat."

When Blair made no answer, Jim reached out a hand to touch his partner's shoulder. "Hey. What's going on in there, Chief? Talk to me."

Slowly, Blair lowered his hands from his face. His voice, when he finally spoke, was low but steady.

"I don't want to leave, Jim."

Jim frowned. Leave? Trying to squelch an inner sense of unease, he took refuge in humor.

"Sandburg, I know that you've always wanted to live in a warmer climate, but I don't think that the Guadalajara Police Department has any openings right now." He gave a quick squeeze to the warm shoulder that rested beneath his hand.

That seemed to help. Sandburg gave him a weak grin, and Jim could sense his muscles relaxing slightly. C'mon, kid. Let me in. Don't do this to me. "So," he continued lightly, "I think you'd better tell me what's going on, before my hairline recedes any further. Or before I lose my temper again and slap you silly."

Blair nodded, and sat up straighter. "I... had sort of a surprise phone call last week. From Dr. Stoddard."

Jim smiled. "The famed giver of the Baboon's Foot. I'm glad you've been able to keep in touch with him."

"Actually, I hadn't seen much of him lately, what with work and everything else that's been going on lately, but he called and asked me out to lunch..."

One Week Earlier

Whew. Pricey location for lunch. Glad I'm not paying.

Blair looked around at his surroundings: the palm-bedecked lobby of the Hotel Cascadia, complete with a large freestanding fountain in the middle. He checked the clock on the wall. It still lacked a few minutes before the agreed-upon meeting time of twelve-thirty, so he wandered around a bit and studied the Neo-classical sculpture that dotted the spacious room.

At the stroke of twelve-thirty he straightened his narrow knit black tie and walked up to the restaurant's reservation desk.

"Table for one, sir?" The host reached down to grab a menu, but not before Blair notice the faint hint of scorn in the man's eyes.

Okay, so my clothes aren't exactly what the prosperous young businessman is wearing these days. But I'm wearing a tie, and there's no holes in my pants. You can't kick me out just for not fitting your stereotype.

Aloud he merely said, "Uh, no, I'm meeting someone for lunch. Dr. Eli Stoddard. He's probably not here yet, but I can wait for him in there. Or out here. Whatever." Blair bit down hard on his tongue, trying not to babble.

To his surprise, the host's eyebrows shot up and his face lost its supercilious expression. "Ah! You're Dr. Stoddard's other guest. Of course, sir, would you please walk this way?"

Blair had to force back a snort of slightly hysterical laughter as he followed the young man back into the restaurant, smiling at the host's exaggerated mincing walk. No, I don't think I'd better walk that way. If I did, there'd be all sorts of rumors down at the station.

He was so caught up in his private joke that it wasn't until there were approaching a table that Blair thought to wonder what the host had meant by "Dr. Stoddard's other guest". And by that time, he no longer had to wonder.

Eli Stoddard, beaming nervously, stood as Blair approached, rising from his chair at the round table set for three. And across from him, her hand held out in apparent welcome, stood Chancellor Edwards.

"Chancellor," Blair stammered. "I -- There must be some mistake. Dr. Stoddard, did I get the date wrong? It is Tuesday, isn't it?"

"No, no, no mistake, Blair. No mistake. Sit down, my boy. We've already ordered, but the waiter should be coming back any moment to take your order. Here, have a glass of wine." Dr. Stoddard reached for the bottle in front of him and poured a generous tipple into Blair's glass.

"Thanks." Blair raised the glass to his lips and took a drink, to cover his confusion. What, in the name of all that is holy, is the Chancellor doing here? And why is she smiling at me? And why hasn't her face cracked yet?

Just then the waiter returned, and Blair managed to stumble through the process of ordering something while his mind whirled. Only after the waiter left did Dr. Stoddard pick up his own wine glass and lift it as in a toast.

"To new opportunities!"

Blair lifted his glass and drank, dutifully, darting a glance at Chancellor Edwards. She was still smiling... even more strangely, she was smiling at him. She met his gaze and raised her own glass in answer to the toast. Blair nearly choked at the sight, then decided to risk a question.

"Chancellor, pardon me, but I'm feeling a bit confused." A nervous laugh escaped him. "The last time I spoke with you, you told me in no uncertain terms that you were not pleased to see me, even in my new police capacity. I'm curious as to what has brought about such a change of heart." There. That was diplomatic, without quite groveling on the carpet. Much more socially acceptable than asking "Who are you and what have you done with the Chancellor?

"Mr. Sandburg... it is difficult to explain. Suffice it to say that time and certain interventions have softened the University's attitude toward you somewhat. You have a powerful champion in Dr. Stoddard, and in the last year several prominent people in the city have sent me testimonials regarding your performance with the police department." She sipped from her own wineglass. "I'll get right to the point. The university has recently received a very large bequest. Do you remember Abraham Still, who died a couple of weeks ago?"

Blair nodded, still puzzled. "Yes. I know he was a great philanthropist, and I know they're talking about naming that new park down by the waterfront after him."

"Mr. Still left three grown children and numerous grandchildren. One of them was Kayla Gilbert."

Kayla Gilbert. The only child to escape alive from Harley Spencer; the child who would have been his sixth victim if Jim and I hadn't rescued her and put him away. The little girl that I tore out of his hands as he was about to torture and kill her. "I didn't know that," he answered lamely.

Now Dr. Stoddard broke in. "Mr. Still apparently found out about your dismissal, and also spoke up on your behalf. He came to me about a month before his death, and told me of his plans to try to help you return to the academic life if you so chose. Mind you, he left no formal strings attached to his bequest, but he did set aside part of it to fund a research fellowship. It's usable for a grad student in any discipline, provided they eventually head toward a law-enforcement-related career and provided they can demonstrate financial need or other... difficult circumstances." He cleared his throat. "It's a custom-made scholarship for you, lad."

Blair felt unbidden tears spring to his eyes. The old man was dying of cancer, and he still thought to reach out and help someone he barely knew. I'm not worthy of this, I'm not.

"The upshot of all this, Mr. Sandburg," continued the Chancellor briskly, "is that since most of the fuss and scandal has died away, and since you have such influential friends, both dead and alive, we are prepared to offer you a chance to finish your Ph.D. at Rainier."

Present Day

"Finish your degree? How? What? Sandburg, that's great! That'd be fantastic!" Jim sat bolt upright on the couch, almost knocking over his glass of water but saving it at the last minute with a well-timed grab. "You'd have to start over, with... with a new subject, but still! Simon would love it, having someone in the department with a doctorate. What did you say?"

Jim searched his friend's face for clues even as he asked the question. Blair seemed, well, rather still and contained, not exactly turning handsprings from the good news. Well, it probably came as a bit of a shock to him, getting this offer. "What did you say, Chief?" he persisted.

Sandburg looked away, picked listlessly at a frayed patch on his faded jeans. "It's not as simple as it sounds," he said at last.

"What's to decide? It's what you've always wanted, isn't it? If you're worried about your... position with the department, I'm sure it won't be a problem. Simon'll give you a leave of absence in an instant for this. Or..." Now it was Jim's turn to look away, as he swallowed and finally spoke the words that he knew he needed to. "Or if you don't want to do the cop thing anymore, I'll understand. I know it wasn't exactly your first choice."

"Thanks, Jim." Blair raised his face, smiled wanly. "That's part of it, sort of. Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't trade this last year for anything. You have no idea how much I've learned, how much it's meant to me to be able to truly work as your partner. But now... it's as if I'm standing at a fork in the road. Corny, but that's all I can think of."

Jim tried to keep his voice gentle, thinking that he understood the choice tormenting his partner. "And you're not sure which to pick?"

"Now, both roads are open, when before there was a big fat 'Road Closed' sign on one of them. And the route I think I wanted, well..." He sighed. "But it's more difficult than that, Jim." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, resting his chin in his hands, the very picture of glum confusion.

"What's wrong, Chief?" Jim reached out and placed a hand on Sandburg's shoulder.

Blair sighed. "The offer to return to Rainier, to complete my degree -- Well, it comes with some conditions." He spat the word out, almost angrily. "Courtesy of the Chancellor."

"What kind of conditions?"

Abruptly, Blair rose to begin pacing about the room. "Well, she made it clear that I would need to find a new topic for my dissertation. That's as much as I would have expected, and I'd want to do that anyway." He stopped and met Jim's gaze, looking directly into the blue eyes. "The Sentinel stuff, well, I'll save that. Maybe someday, when you're retired, I'll publish that one. But in the meantime, I'll have to come up with something new to satisfy the dissertation committee."

"And you're worried you won't be able to find a subject that's suitable?"

"That's part of it. And I'm just out of practice, out of the academic swing of things."

"You'll get it back, Sandburg. You've only been gone a little over a year."

"Maybe." Blair resumed his pacing, looking at the floor. "But there's more. The Chancellor. She kept smiling at me, but I get the feeling that she still doesn't like me very much. After we'd talked a little bit about dissertation topic ideas, she told me about the other conditions..."

One Week Earlier

Blair pecked nervously at his food when it arrived, half-listening to Dr. Stoddard as his former mentor rattled on excitedly. "...imagine how good it would be to have you back, young man! My advanced seminar course just didn't seem the same without you in it, stirring things up. And since you wouldn't be teaching, you could finish your dissertation in no time at all."

"Not teaching?" Sandburg frowned. "I thought, well, if I came back, I'd need to do something for some income. Even if the grant pays the tuition fees, I still need to eat and have a roof over my head." He turned back to Chancellor Edwards. "I wouldn't be able to teach?"

The smile vanished, and though the Chancellor's face became expressionless, Blair shuddered inwardly at the chilly contempt he saw briefly in those eyes. "Suffice it to say," she said at last, "that the University is being extraordinarily generous in offering you a chance to come back to finish your degree. Our tolerance does not extend to putting you in front of a classroom again, to teach the undergraduates. You understand, I am sure. A teaching assistant must be above reproach." The smile returned, but with a glacial edge. "Now, if one of the faculty wishes to employ you for research, we would of course consider that. Provided that you can find someone who has room in his or her budget this year."

Blair darted a glance at Dr. Stoddard, hoping for a reassuring grin, but the professor merely looked thoughtful. He sighed and returned his attention to the Chancellor. "All right, supposing I can work out the financial aspects of all this. I simply need to re-apply, and choose a dissertation subject that meets with the approval of the committee?"

"Officially, there's a scholarship committee that will meet to decide who the recipient of the fellowship will be. Unofficially..." Dr. Stoddard leaned forward. "Unofficially, it was certainly Abraham Still's intention that you be the first recipient of the grant, and the committee will be taking his dying wishes into account. He made recommendations as to whom should comprise the committee, and I don't think -- Let's just say, Blair, that you wouldn't have much to worry about in that respect."

Chancellor Edwards finished her dessert and laid the fork down with an audible clank. "We will, however, expect timely progress on your dissertation. No more skylarking off to parts unknown to play international vigilante." She fixed Blair with a steely gaze. "I myself will be part of your dissertation committee, to keep a personal eye on your progress."

Blair's heart sank. The Chancellor on my dissertation committee? But, she's not an anthropologist. Oh, that's right, she's a sociologist. Close enough, and no one but me is going to object. He managed a level nod. "If I return," he said carefully, "I would of course carry out any responsibilities expected of me."

"I'm glad that's understood," answered the Chancellor, nodding crisply. "Certainly, you would have to leave your present full-time employment in order to complete your degree in a timely manner. And in order to improve your reputation and help erase the memories of the scandal, I strongly suggest you distance yourself as much as possible from the Cascade Police and your previous dissertation subject."

Present Day

Jim frowned. "She's ordering you to stay away from the department, and from me. That's a bit pushy, to say the least."

Sinking back down onto the couch next to Jim, Blair heaved a sigh. "She's got me, Jim. Abraham Still may have the influence -- even in death -- to get me re-enrolled, but if Chancellor Edwards is on my dissertation committee, I will live and die by her approval. She's got a lot of influence on that campus."

"But she's willing to let you come back. That surprises me. If she really dislikes you, why doesn't she just try to bar you from the scholarship on -- on the grounds of your previous dismissal?" Jim spread his hands out in front of him in a questioning posture.

Blair snorted. "Oh, she could, but it's not in her best interest, and she knows it. I did a little research after I left the restaurant. I stopped by Still's attorneys' office and got a look at the will." He gave Jim a tired grin. "Eli Stoddard said there were no strings attached to the offer, and he's sort of right, but he's not a particularly suspicious man. If you read between the lines, it gets very interesting.

"Abraham Still left a very large chunk of money to the University. Most of it was earmarked for the general endowment. Not unexpected, as he attended Rainier as an undergrad himself. A smaller part of it, though -- I forget how much, there was a lot of double-talk about percentages and interest -- is set aside to fund a permanent scholarship. As the Chancellor said, it's for a Ph.D. candidate in any discipline, as long as they are intending a career in a law-enforcement-related field. It covers all tuition and fees, as well as reimbursement for modest research expenses."

"And the strings?"

"Still specified a scholarship committee of six, to be selected each spring by the Trustees, so that the committee can then select a student each year in the fall. The position of Trustee is a lifelong one, and he named the two people he wanted to be the first Trustees." Blair leaned back against the couch cushions. "In the small print, as it were, there's a warning that if the scholarship is not awarded every year, in a timely manner, yada yada yada, to the satisfaction of the Trustees, then the whole shootin' match, the entire bequest of umpteen million dollars goes off to the Red Cross."

Jim's eyebrow rose. "The man had strong feelings about his scholarship."

"Jim, that's not the half of it. The first two trustees?" He paused. "Professor Eli Stoddard of Rainier University. And from the community, Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade P.D."

"What!" Jim stood up, almost without realizing it. "Simon is in on this little conspiracy? He hasn't said a word about it!"

"I think -- I think he was trying to tell me something about it, today, after he chewed me out, but the phone rang, and we never really got to finish talking."

Jim walked into the kitchen, trying to cover the shock on his face by reaching into the refrigerator for a beer. On impulse, he grabbed one for his partner as well, and opened both bottles. Partner for how much longer, I wonder? Has he made his decision, yet? Returning to the living room, he handed one cold bottle to Sandburg and sat down next to him.

"So," he probed, keeping his voice carefully neutral, "what are you going to do?"

Blair was silent for a few moments, swirling the beer absently and staring into its depths. Jim watched him, watched the subtle play of emotions across the familiar face. He's not as easy to read as he was a few years ago; he's gotten better at hiding things from me. He sipped at his own beer, wondering at his own reaction to the news. He'd felt nothing but astonished joy when Blair had first told him of the offer, of the chance to finish the degree that he knew meant so much to his partner. But as the rest of the story unfolded, the joy had turned to apprehension at the implication of the 'conditions'. Apprehension mixed with plain, old, ugly jealousy.

But I won't stand in his way, Jim vowed silently. If he really wants this, wants to go back and finish, I'll try to cheer him on. No matter how lonely I feel. What right, after all, did he have to keep Sandburg tied to his side, always aching for his lost scholarship, trying so hard to be a police officer but without, perhaps, ever coming to think like one? And always second fiddle to me, the Sentinel.

"I don't know," Blair said slowly, at last breaking the silence. He held the dark amber bottle against his forehead, rolling it back and forth as if to cool his head or soothe an ache. "Still obviously went to a lot of trouble to see that I had this chance, and I'd probably be an idiot to reject it. But all the same, I sort of feel like a puppet, with old Mr. Still pulling half my strings, and Chancellor Edwards pulling the others. I don't like having other people decide how I'm to live my life." He laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. "That's almost enough to make me tell them, 'screw you' and just keep on with what I'm doing."

"Chief." Jim paused, then plunged ahead. "Chief, you should do it. Short-term, you might have to swallow your pride, and live off Top Ramen for a year. But in the end, you'd have your dream."

"My dream..." Blair trailed off. "My dream was to submit the Sentinel material as my dissertation, and someday to see it published. Anything else, any other topic is second best." He lifted his head, and Jim thought he saw the blue eyes sparkle with moisture. "But we both know, now, that I can't have that, not after, well, what happened. The question has to be: is a second-best dream worth enough to sacrifice my new career, and a year or more of my life?" Sandburg let his chin drop again.

"You know that you wouldn't be sacrificing anything down at the department," Jim pointed out. "Especially since it seems that Simon is in this up to the eyeballs. There'll be a place for you, when you're done. If you want it." He looked hard at his young friend, searching the weary face for signs that Sandburg was any closer to his decision. "When do you have to decide?"

Blair leaned forward, pulling his stockinged feet up onto the couch and hugging his knees to his chest. "Soon. Day after tomorrow, at the latest. If I don't want it, they need to start looking for another candidate, fast, or lose the entire bequest."

Silence hung heavily between them then, as Sandburg closed his eyes and rested his chin on his knees. Jim leaned back against the couch cushions and shut his own eyes, idly allowing his senses to play about the room. His questing nose caught whiffs of tomato and cheese from their dinner, the remains of which were now congealing in the refrigerator. He could smell his shoes from where they sat by the door, their normal dirty-sock odor now unpleasantly tinged with a little blood from that nightmare today at Tino's. His ears caught the late-evening traffic hum from the street below, broken up by the low murmur of a passing couple laughing and talking. And on the couch next to him, he heard Blair?s heart beating slowly and evenly in the stillness of the loft.

He opened his eyes and rose slowly from the couch, the motion causing Sandburg to start up as if he'd been asleep. Or meditating. Guess he'll be doing some of that in the next couple of days. Forcing back all of the confused, complicated emotions that had come to him in the last little while, he stopped to lay a hand on Blair's shoulder.

"I'm going to call it a night and head to bed early, Chief. Good luck. And know that, whatever you decide, I'll back you up."

Sandburg's hand came up to clasp his briefly. "Thanks, Jim."

After closing the doors to his little room and dimming the lights, Blair stepped over to his desk, reaching for a couple of vanilla-scented candles. He paused in mid-reach, then opened the desk drawer and pulled out two Polaroids. He sat in his chair, flipping on the study lamp as he picked up the first snapshot. Studying the tarot cards shown in the photo, he remembered Madame Mysteria's words: "Someone offers you what you deserve, but there are strings attached."

He had protested, thinking the words related to his partnership with Jim, momentarily forgetting that fortune-telling dealt with the future, not the past. He put the snapshot down and picked up the second one. Concentrating, he heard more of Madame's words: "You will split up with a friend or lover. There will be arguments and a difficult decision you will not wish to make. Think carefully."

Several seconds passed, then Blair thoughtfully put both photos back in the top drawer. He rose, turned out he lamp and picked up two meditation candles. He placed them on the small table by his bedside and lit them. He settled onto his bed in lotus position. After a few minutes of deep, controlled breathing, he succeeded in reaching a fairly relaxed state.

Talking with Jim went a lot better than I thought it would. I'm not sure what I was expecting. Guess I was worried that Jim would get all territorial, or be offended that I would consider leaving the force to finish my degree.

But I'm no closer to a decision.

He sighed. He'd been over it all so many times in the last few days. Two options, each with possibilities, each with the promise of pain as well. Yes, he wanted those three letters after his name, hungered for them, in fact. Hungered for the recognition, the moment when he'd receive the document, feel the hood placed about his shoulders. Hungered for the look of beaming pride upon his mother's face, where he'd seen it so many times in his dreams.

He hadn't been entirely truthful to Jim, earlier. True, he'd always envisioned the Sentinel material as the subject of his thesis. After all, he'd been obsessed with sentinels since he was a kid. But he'd had to write shorter papers on many other subjects during his time at Rainier and had almost always managed to feel a fair amount of enthusiasm for any engaging subject. Anthropology, after all, was a field of infinite diversity. While part of him still grieved for his poor mistreated Sentinel thesis, another more resilient part of him realized that the idea of a new subject was not entirely repugnant.

He shifted position as his legs cramped slightly. Getting old, Sandburg. You used to be able to sit like this for hours.

On the other hand, he'd slowly gained respect from the men and women of Major Crime during both his years as civilian observer and his stint as full-fledged detective. He'd come to feel deep satisfaction in his work, come to feel that he truly was making a difference in his city. Away from the isolated halls of academia, he'd learned lessons that he would never have found in books or among the primitive tribes of Borneo. If he left now, would he ever find the courage to come back and work at Jim's side? And how well will he manage without me?

Jim didn't really need him now, not in the sense that he'd needed Blair in those first few heady months. He never zoned out now, used his senses without much conscious effort or even without much guidance from Blair, and needed much less prompting. Oh, sure, every now and then something was bound to come up, but on a day-to-day basis Blair's presence wasn't really necessary.

Which still leaves friendship. Which counts for an awful lot.

He swallowed audibly. God help me, how do I decide this?

He tried to imagine himself walking into Dr. Stoddard's office tomorrow, telling him thanks, but no thanks, he'd stick with the police, better find another candidate for the scholarship, give my love to the department. In his mind's eye, he saw the bitter disappointment in his mentor's eyes, heard the halting response.

Then he set himself into the opposite scenario: walking into Simon's office to resign, seeing the look on Simon's face. What would it be? Disappointment that Blair had chosen to leave? Or pride that his unlikely protˇgˇ had chosen to return to Rainier to finish what he'd once started? He tried to imagine himself telling Jim that he would be leaving the force, and even in his mind was unable to complete his speech.

With hot tears welling in his eyes, he blew out the candles and crawled into his bed with an aching head and a heavy heart.

For a long time, Jim lay awake, blinking into the darkness. The day's earlier events came back to him: his and Sandburg's frustration with the lack of progress on the current case, the ghastly unexpected shooting at Tino's, the well-deserved dressing-down from Simon. And Blair's revelation, coming on the heels of a pretty rotten day.

At least now I know why he's been such a pill for the last week or so.

As well as he thought he knew his partner, after all these years, after they'd literally been through life and death together, through rejection and reconciliation, and everything else, Jim knew that Blair's decision could go either way quite easily. They'd been through events that would have stressed a lesser friendship to the breaking point, and had nearly broken the slender bond that bound them together. But even after all of this, he had to admit to himself that he didn't know which way Sandburg would decide.

And maybe that's because he himself doesn't know what he'll do.

He tossed and turned fitfully, cursing his apparently tireless brain for keeping him awake. And why am I so wound up in this? It's his decision, pure and simple. And honestly, I can't see that the outcome need change my life all that much. If he stays, well, maybe he'll finally be at peace, knowing he could have gone back but chose not to. If he leaves... well, he'll be back, in one form or another.

I hope.

Jim rolled over one final time, relentlessly squashing the whispering doubts in his mind, and gritted his teeth as he prepared to will himself to sleep.


"Jim, have you seen that jar of strawberry jam I brought home last week?"

Jim half-turned in response, hurriedly swallowing the mouthful of coffee. Well, he looks reasonably chipper, he thought, eyeing his house-mate. "Last week? Uh, I didn't see any jam in there this morning," he evaded.

"That was homemade strawberry freezer jam that Rhonda gave me, Jim. Did you eat it?"

"Chief, let me get this straight. Simon's secretary, whom I have known for several years longer than I've known you, gave you homemade strawberry jam."

"Yeah. Did you eat it?"

"Just a moment. Now, Rhonda knows that you live with me. Therefore, she obviously gave you -- us -- enough for two."

"You ate it!"

"Some of it," he admitted grudgingly. "It was really good."

Blair dropped into a chair, laughing. Jim smiled back, and was relieved to see something in his partner's face that hadn't been there the night before. A hint of peace, perhaps.

"Find something else to satisfy your sweet tooth, Junior, and let's get a move on. We're burning daylight."

Blair grinned, snatched Jim's coffee cup and swigged from it, then made a face and set the mug hastily back down. "Yuk! How long has that been sitting around?"

"Long enough. Tell you what, Chief. Be ready in five minutes, and I'll buy us both double lattes at Java Jive on the way. We could use a treat this morning."

Despite the stop at Java Jive, the bullpen was still fairly quiet when the two detectives arrived. Blair shot at glance at Simon's office, but the blinds were drawn. Maybe he hadn't arrived yet, or more likely he was deep in some confidential conversation. Like with the University, regarding my future.

Jim pulled out the case files for the three attempted child abductions and spread them out on his desk.

"All right. Today, one of two things happens."

Blair gave him a quizzical look. "Um, Jim..."

"The case, the case! Remember the case? Forget your personal life for a moment, and let's think about the case. Either," he pointed at the folders, "either we determine that there's absolutely no connection between the three incidents, despite the superficial resemblance, and these get put in cold storage until some more leads pop up, or until we have another incident, anyway. Or: we find a connection, however slim, and we pursue it. I'm tired of having this one hanging over our heads."

Sandburg nodded. "We can start with the composite drawings, and see if there's any similarity that we've overlooked." He fingered one of the drawings, studying the sketch of a bearded man with glasses. "Jim, I know I kind of blew up about this case yesterday. I'm sorry. I was on edge, I guess."

"I know that now. Never mind, we'll just have to look at everything with a fresh perspective."

For the next hour or so, Jim read and reread the case files, while Blair stared at the drawings. The sketches were of course fairly crude, having been reconstructed from the shaken memories of rather frightened children. Yet the more Blair studied them, the more he became uncomfortably aware that he was seeing something in the three drawings that nagged at him. He sighed, and Jim looked up at the sound.

"Find anything, Chief?"

"No. Just that damned beard and glasses. I guess it could be the same person, after all. The witness are all under the age of ten and were pretty scared. You find anything?"

"Maybe." Jim opened one file, point to a page. "Here's the file on Ashley Turnbull, the first kid. I didn't make the connection before, but her father is David Entermann."

"So who's he? And why does she have a different last name?"

"He's well-known nationally as a 'fathers-rights' advocate. I vaguely remember when it all hit the papers, about five years ago... messy divorce, the mother granted full custody, the father denied visitations because of allegations of abuse that were proven to the judge's satisfaction. All too common these days, and nothing I would have remembered, except that Entermann went off on a personal crusade about the whole thing. Held press conferences, was interviewed by everyone under the sun."

Blair nodded slowly. "That's right. He made a huge fuss, and insisted on using his daughter's real name when he was quoted. Wouldn't let her case be anonymous."

"Since then, he's been running around the country rabble-rousing, saying that he was framed. He was never actually charged; the D.A. didn't think a three-year-old would make the world's best witness. He's got quite the band of disciples, especially here in the Northwest, complete with a legal defense fund and a hot-line for fathers to call if they think that their rights are being abused."

Blair took the file from his partner. "But we talked to her mom and dad together, I thought."

"Stepfather. He adopted Ashley over a year ago, and they had her name changed. That's why I didn't make the connection right away. I just remembered, when I saw that they had listed 'Ashley Entermann' for her as an AKA." He swiveled around to his computer. "Let's see what our friend Mr. Entermann has been up to lately, shall we?"

"Jim, I think you're on to something. Maybe..." Sandburg let the thought hang unfinished.

"Ah-ha. What have we here?" crowed Jim. "Our Mr. Entermann works for ImageTronix."


"So, look in those files and check the marital status of the other two kids' families."

Blair picked up the other two files. "One separated, one divorced. And James Hickfield, the second kid's father, works at ImageTronix too."

"There's our connection. Something to start with, anyway."

"Jim, you have so lost me. Just because the dads work together?" Blair sat back in his chair.

"You know how these things work. Custody is awarded, but if the other parent can prove the kid's not in a safe environment, sometimes the decision might be reversed. At the very least, a faked kidnapping attempt would shake up the other parent. C'mon, Chief, I think we need to go chat with this Entermann character."

Just as they rose, the phone on Jim's desk rang. He snatched it up. "Ellison. Oh, hi, Serena. Great, that's worth something. Send me a copy. Thanks." He clicked the phone back down. "Serena says that the wad of chewing gum we found yesterday at the school yard turned out to be nicotine gum."

"So, we're looking for someone who's trying to quit smoking." Blair grabbed his jacket.

"Very good. You learn that kind of deductive reasoning at Rainier?"

"No respect, Jim. I get no respect." Blair grinned as they headed out the bullpen door.

"And it's even better than that," Jim continued. "Serena says there was quite a bit of saliva and junk in the gum, maybe some cells from the mouth. She thinks we just might be able to get DNA out of it."

Blair nodded. "If we can just find someone to match it to."

"Lovely neighborhood. I thought that the high-tech industry paid better that this," Blair observed as they walked up the gravel path.

Entermann lived in a small house in one of the shabbier areas of town. Not a slum, not a particularly dangerous neighborhood, just a tired, washed-out, falling-apart neighborhood. Old houses huddled together in a landscape of gravel and concrete, accented by the occasional faded strip of grass.

"Maybe he spends all of his income on his organization, this 'Fathers' Rights International' group." Jim pointed to one of the houses, a particularly sad specimen. "This is it. Let's see if he's willing to chat with us."

They walked up the short path; Jim rapped on the door. After a minute or two, it opened to admit a rather nondescript man of middle height. He was scowling even as Jim and Blair pulled out their badges. Jim noticed immediately a faint odor of cigarette smoke about the man, as well as the yellow-stained nails.

"Detectives Ellison and Sandburg, with the Cascade P.D. Are you David Entermann?"

"Yes, I am. What's this all about?"

Jim pocketed his shield. "We'd just like to ask you a couple of questions, Mr. Entermann. Could we come in?"

"No, you certainly may not. You can ask me your questions right here."

"All right. Do you have a daughter named Ashley?"

Entermann's face darkened. "Had a daughter. She doesn't even know me now, thanks to her mother."

"So, you haven't seen her lately?" Blair asked

"I don't have visitation rights," the man answered bluntly.

That's not what I asked, Jim thought. Let's try a more direct approach. "Mr. Entermann, are you aware that there was an attempted abduction three weeks ago involving your daughter?" As he asked the question, Jim focused his hearing on the man's heart rate.

He wasn't surprised to hear the abrupt jump as Entermann answered. "Umm, no, I hadn't heard anything about that! Dammit, her mother hasn't seen fit to notify me of anything else for the past five years!"

"Okay, okay, calm down." Blair ran one hand through his hair. "Do you have a co-worker named James Hickfield?"

"Yeah, so what?"

"Does he have a daughter? Named Erin?"

"He might. Yeah, he's a got a kid. But he never sees her, either."

Jim sighed. "Are you aware that she was also the victim of an attempted abduction?"

"I don't know James all that well. Why would he tell me that?" The man folded his arms. "If you have a warrant, come and bother me. Otherwise, I think I've answered enough questions. Good day, officers." He turned and entered the trailer, shutting the door with unnecessary force.

"He's lying," Jim said in a low voice.

"Color me surprised. You pick up on anything?"

"He had a definite jump in his heart rate when we asked him about his daughter. And he smokes. And he was sweating like a pig. Couldn't you smell it?"

Blair laughed. "After all this time, you still ask me that?" He stepped off the tiny front step onto the gravel walk. "Well, now what? Track down Hickfield?"

"I suppose." They walked down the path to the curb. As they passed the overflowing green trashcan, Jim stopped abruptly. "Wait."


"I smell blood."

"Maybe he had steak last light."

"No, this smells like human blood." Jim squatted down next to the plastic trash bin. It was the kind designed for the automated garbage trucks, with a square shape and large plastic wheels on the bottom. He reached into his jacket, pulled out a latex glove and a plastic evidence bag.

"Jim, man, you can't search his trash without a warrant. Can you?"

"Not really. But look here." Jim reached down with the gloved hand, pried loose a wad of blue facial tissue from the bottom of the plastic wheel. As he disturbed it, a strong metallic odor of blood wafted up to his nose. "This is where it was coming from. Maybe he had a nosebleed," he commented, unfolding the crumpled mass to reveal dried blood in the center. "At any rate, it wasn't in the can. It was on the wheel, in the open, on the public right-of-way. This may be something we can use." He sealed it up in the plastic bag. "If Serena can get DNA out of that gum we found at the playground --"

"-- We might be able to match it to this guy," Blair finished. "That'd be very strong circumstantial evidence that he was probably there. Enough to get us a search warrant?"

"I think so. C'mon, Chief, let's get this back to the lab. Then we'll go question our friend Hickfield, see if he's as nervous as his buddy Entermann."

Blair said nothing during the rest of the walk to the truck. After they had buckled in and Jim had started the truck, he cleared his throat.

"Jim, would you mind questioning Hickfield without me?"

Jim shrugged. "I can do that. You got an idea you want to pursue on your own?" He shot a glance over at his partner, noted the way Blair bit his lip and looked away briefly.

"No," came the quiet answer. "I've got an appointment over at Rainier. By the time we get to the station, I'll have just about enough time to get my car and get over there."


"I'm -- not sure how long it'll take, Jim. I'll try to call and update you." He took a deep breath. "Hey, you know, about that blood, and DNA matching and all. Makes me wonder: just how sensitive could a Sentinel be, with training? Maybe someday you could distinguish one person's blood from another, by smell or taste. I didn't even know you could tell the difference between human and animal blood."

Jim looked again at his partner, saw the strained expression, read the obvious desire to change the subject. He forced a grin. "Sandburg, if you think I'm going to go around crime sites licking at bloodstains, you're even crazier than Simon thinks you are."

"It was just a thought, Jim, just a thought."

As Jim pulled up in front of his home, he automatically used his hearing to scan the loft. Nothing. Sandburg's still not back, then.

His observations were confirmed a few minutes later when he opened the door. It was almost seven o'clock, but the loft was quiet and dark, with no evidence that Sandburg had been back. Blair had hurried off to his appointment as soon as they reached the station. Jim had gone off in search of James Hickfield, but had been unable to locate him. No one had answered at his house, and his coworkers told the detective he'd left work early mentioning that he wasn't feeling well. Probably, Entermann called him and tipped him off, Jim thought sourly. Didn't want him to spill anything. Well, we'll track him down eventually. Blair hadn't come back, hadn't called, hadn't left any message. That's unlike him, these days. He's become so reliable.

Jim hung up his coat and began to rummage in the refrigerator and cupboards for something that he could use to construct dinner. Tired and hungry, he decided to settle for a patented Ellison creation, the cheddar and pickle on rye. With onions, he decided, having spotted one lonely white globe in the vegetable bin.

He was chewing on the last of the crumbs and debating on the wisdom of having another when the door finally opened to admit a subdued Sandburg.

"Hey. I was beginning to wonder." He indicated his empty plate. "Want a sandwich?"

Blair smiled briefly. "Sure. No pickles, though."

"It's not a sandwich without pickles, Sandburg," answered Jim amiably as he sliced cheese and spread mayonnaise. "But Mrs. Taggart's homemade Garlic Dills should not be wasted on unappreciative infidels. Here you are, nary a pickle in sight." He placed the sandwich in front of his friend with a forced cheerfulness.

Sandburg ate silently while Jim cleaned up the scant debris left from their dinner, occasionally darting glances over at the younger man.

"Jim, how can I eat with you watching me like that?"

"Sorry." He slapped the wet sponge down on the counter, and finished wiping up the last of the crumbs.

"Jim," said Sandburg softly after a few more minutes, when Jim was pretending to put away silverware. "I went over to the University today, like I said I was going to."

Jim stiffened in automatic reaction. "And?"

Blair sighed. "Come over here and sit down. I can't talk to your back."

Shutting the silverware drawer with a clumsy bang, Jim sat back down at the table. "I'm listening," he said quietly.

"I went to Dr. Stoddard, and I told him my decision. I -- I want to go for it, Jim. I want to try for my degree." He looked down for a moment, and Jim could hear him swallow. "He promised to tell the Chancellor. I still have a little bit of paperwork to do over at the Registrar's office in the morning, but it's official. I've re-enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology."

"Congratulations, Chief." Jim reached forward across the table and gripped Blair's forearm for a moment.

"That was the easy part." Blair grinned weakly. "Then I had to talk to Simon, to tell him about my resignation. I went back over to the station to talk with him. You still weren't back."

Jim ignored the uneasy flip-flop that his stomach performed upon hearing that word, resignation, and pushed ahead. "How did Simon take it?"

"Well, he wasn't exactly surprised. You were right when you referred to him as a conspirator. This may have been his idea as much as old Mr. Still's brainstorm, from the way he acted. He's happy for me, and acting as if I've already got the degree. He's as pleased as punch. And yes, he left me with the impression that I would be welcome back. At any point."

"That's great, Chief." Good for Simon, to go to bat for the kid like this. Against his own short-term best interests, really.

"I waited a bit for you -- probably just missed you -- then I went over to Dr. Stoddard's house."

"Oh?" Jim noticed a different note in his partner's voice. More cautious now, less confident.

"We were talking a little bit about cash flow for me. Employment, I mean. Dr. Stoddard already has most of his research budget allotted for this year, but he thinks he can find me a little bit of work to do for him. Enough to keep me eating, and the scholarship will take care of almost anything else. Except rent, of course."

Jim snorted. "Sandburg, if you think I'm going to charge --"

Blair raised a hand. "Wait, Jim, hear me out. I know what you're going to say, and I'm grateful for it." The hand dropped back to the table. To the Sentinel, his friend looked suddenly weary and fragile, both older and younger than his true age. "But I can't do it. I can't sponge off you, man. Not and keep my self-respect."

"Then you can owe me, or something. No rent now, and pay it back gradually once you have a good income again. C'mon, Chief, you know I own this place. Whether or not you pay me rent, I can still manage just fine. You just buy some food, and that's enough."

"No," Blair answered softly, stubbornly. "I won't sponge off of you," he repeated.

"You've missed rent before, sometimes two months in a row. I never gave you a hard time about it," Jim pointed out. "You never seemed to lie awake at night worrying about it, either."

"That's different," Sandburg protested. "Sure, I was dirt poor, but I was contributing something. Especially in that first year, when your senses were so wacky. And I was helping with your cases. To me, that made it okay. Now -- now I can't help you down at the station anymore. And you don't really need me to help with your senses. Not really."

Jim's answer was quiet, but the words resonated through the room. "I'll always need you, Chief."

"Thanks." Blair looked down at the table again for a moment, then took a deep breath. "Like I said, I went over to Dr. Stoddard's house again. He's got a spare room in his basement that he's not using, and he says I'm welcome to live in it for a while. Plus, he's talking about sending me out with some of his new grad students on a short field assignment. Not really teaching, just showing them the ropes."

Jim turned away so that his partner would not see the hurt on his face. "His basement. So, you'll take charity from him, but not from me?" From me, your best friend, your partner. You called me 'brother' once. Doesn't that count for anything? His throat ached with that dry pressure that came only from one thing: tears of shock and pain, seeking a release. Ruthlessly, he swallowed them back. He heard an intake of breath across the table from him, then a scraping sound that was probably Sandburg scooting back his chair. Great. Now I've pissed him off, and he's going to go sulk in his room. Or worse, go start packing his bags right now.

Then he heard a rustle off to his left, and turned back to see his friend down on one knee on the floor beside Jim's chair.

"Jim, I'm sorry." Sandburg's voice was wooden. His hand came up to clasp Jim's. "But it's different. It's hard to explain, but it is. Eli Stoddard... he's my teacher and mentor. Sort of like having an indulgent uncle, I guess. He and his wife are empty-nesters; they'll get a kick out of having me there. I wouldn't be the first student in the basement room, and I won't be the last. Mrs. Stoddard is already planning to fatten me up.

"But you and I, man, we're partners. That means sharing, that means give and take. If I have to be a full-time student, and spend most of my time at Rainier, and I can't help you with your senses, and I can't be involved in the cop stuff, then I don't bring anything to the partnership. Sooner or later, you'd come to resent that."

Jim reached out with his free hand and touched the top of Blair's head briefly, tentatively, a quick blessing. "I hope I wouldn't be that shallow," he said gruffly.

"And Jim, some of it's me, too. I need some distance, if I'm to make a break with being a cop. Even if it's temporary." He laughed shakily. "Can you imagine how hard it would be to spend all day writing away on this damn thesis, then to have you come home and tell me about your adventures? I'd be so jealous, man. Now that I've been out there." He released Jim's hand, and rose to his feet.

"When..." Jim couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence.

"Couple of days. I need to see when I can get some people rounded up to help me with my stuff."

'You know," Jim swallowed painfully against that still-aching throat, "you know that the whole gang from Major Crime would be here in an instant, to help."

"I know," Blair whispered. "But I can't let them do that, Jim. It would be too hard. Hard on me." He reached up to scrub at his eyes with the back of his hand. "I'd be bawling in front of all of them, and how would I ever be able to come back and be a hard-ass cop if they saw me like that?"

Jim stood up, placed a gentle hand on his friend's shoulder, kneaded the warm muscle beneath the skin, felt the knotted tension. "They're very fond of you, Chief. Don't deny them -- us -- the chance to help you."

"I'll have to think about it. Maybe you can get them all to be really nasty to me. That might help." Another deep breath. "I'll need to go by the bullpen tomorrow, to clean out my desk. Jim, would you do me a favor?"

"Anything, Chief."

"Would you spread the word around, what's happened? I don't want to have to explain this a dozen times." He smiled, but there was a tightness in the expression.

"Sure." Jim glanced at the clock. Only nine-thirty. And we're both wound up as tight as springs. "You want to pop out for a bit? Go grab that sundae I offered last night?"

A real smile broke across Sandburg's features. "I think I need a double hot-fudge avalanche sundae. With extra sprinkles. And a wafer."

Act IV

(Two days later)

In the end, Blair relented and let his Major Crime family help him to pack up his things. Watching as his friends committed various forms of mayhem to the loft Friday night, he smiled wistfully.

Arguing with Jim is one thing. But I couldn't argue with all of them.

The forty-eight hours since his decision had alternately flown by and crept at a snail's pace. The nights had been endless and almost sleepless; the hour or so he spent cleaning out his desk at work had been excruciatingly slow. The people in the bullpen had contented themselves with quiet well-wishing, and had then pretended to work while he stuffed papers unceremoniously into a box. But he had seen the dark loss in the eyes of his closest friends. Rafe and Henri, Simon, Joel, Megan, Rhonda -- all of them had slapped him on the back and told him to study hard, write the best damn dissertation that Rainier had ever seen. But as he left, he saw Megan running for the ladies' room with a hand across her eyes, concealing the tears that he knew were blinding her.

Jim hadn't even been there; he was out on a case. Or just driving around somewhere, trying to avoid the moment. I don't blame him.

There had been one bright spot, today. Jim had come home, told him of the outcome of the child-snatching case. A search of Entermann's home had revealed photo after photo of his estranged child, as well as materials for creating professional-quality disguises. Confronted with the DNA evidence of his presence on the site of the attempted abduction, he'd confessed to a scheme involving repeated threats against the little girl, an attempt to somehow convince the courts that she wasn't safe with her mother, that she needed to be with him. The DA was having him interviewed by a psychiatrist on Monday. The other two girls both had fathers involved in some way with Entermann's radical group; he'd convinced both men that he could help them get their children back. In the end, they had confessed as well. Blair was glad to hear the outcome, glad that there wasn't really a stranger out there preying on helpless kids. Just a confused dad. And now I feel less as if I ran out on an unfinished case.

Now, he watched with mixed feelings as his friends folded clothes, balanced dilapidated cardboard boxes, and lugged heavy textbooks for him. Blair directed them, moving in and out of his room.

"Yeah, the bathroom stuff is already packed. Those are all Jim's things in there. Wait! Rafe, that stays!" He dashed back out to the living room, where Rafe stood poised to lift a tribal mask off the wall.

Rafe looked puzzled. "But it's yours, isn't it? I just thought you hadn't been able to reach it to pack it, Shorty."

"I'm not taking everything, man. Just the clothes and books and stuff, and a few things to make it homier. The big stuff all stays here."

That decision, announced hesitantly only the night before, had scored major points with Jim. Blair had been unsure; he'd always wondered how thin a line he walked when it came to his colorful clutter that had escaped his room and festooned itself around the loft. But Jim had made his views on the subject very clear indeed.

"Sandburg, this is your home," he'd answered matter-of-factly when Blair had asked if he could leave some of the larger items at the loft. The Stoddards had a big house, but the Professor was as much a collector of curiosities as any anthropologist. There wasn't really much room for a lot of additional doodads. "Take what you need to have with you: clothes and textbooks, personal items. But it's silly to pack up all of that other stuff. It'll be here when you get back." He'd grinned one of those rare Jim Ellison grins. "Think of it as collateral. My guarantee that you'll return eventually."

Blair wandered back into his room. Megan had finished boxing up his bedding for him, and was now making up the futon bed with the plain utilitarian sheets that had been in place when Blair had first moved in.

"Megan, you don't need to do that. Let me."

"It's done, Sandy." She settled the gray blanket in place with a twitch. "There. A boring little guestroom. Is this how it used to look?"

He looked around. A few items of clothing still hung in the closet, things that he knew he would never wear but wasn't quite ready to get rid of. The desk was now bare, and the shelves mostly empty. "More or less. This is a little better, actually." He looked down at the floor. "Whoops, almost forgot the throw rug." He bent to pick up the brightly-colored, hand-woven creation, running his hands over the texture of it. "My feet would miss this in the morning." He rolled it up and stuck it into a corner of the nearest open box.

Megan stood up. "I think I'll ride over with Henri and Rafe and the first load." She squeezed his arm as she slipped past him. "I don't think I trust them to know what should go where." The plan called for Henri and Rafe to take over most of Sandburg's things in Jim's truck, then Blair could haul over the remaining items in the Volvo after a farewell dinner.

"I'll see you at dinner, then. Don't let Mrs. Stoddard talk you into a cup of coffee. She's a sweet lady but her coffee could dissolve cast iron." He shuddered. "And her fruit cake... be afraid, be very afraid." Megan smiled as she left.

Bereft of the bird-bright colors of the rug, the little room suddenly seemed very drab and plain. Sandburg sighed, and reached for the light switch to turn it out. Walking out into the living room, he nearly collided with Jim.

"Where is everybody, Sandburg?"

"Rafe and Henri and Megan just left with your truck. Everyone else is going to meet us at the restaurant."

Jim pointed at two sagging, dusty cardboard boxes on the floor by his feet. "I got those two boxes out of the basement, Chief. You sure you want them? They've been down there a while."

"I know. I put them down there last year, after... They're all of my notes and materials for the Sentinel dissertation." He forced a smile. "I may not be able to use it the way I intended, but there's still almost four years worth of observations about cops in there. Should be useful. I'll take them over in the Volvo, later."

"You going to have enough room in there?"

"I don't have that much stuff left. Just my computer and backpack, some little odds and ends that I didn't want to trust to the Three Stooges Moving Crew."

That got a smile. "Which one is Megan?"

"Got me, man, I could never keep them all straight. I'm toast whichever way, if she finds out I said that." Blair looked at his watch. "The reservation is for seven-thirty. We should probably get going, so that they don't give our table away."

"Simon will be there on time. He'll make sure they save it." Jim took a couple of steps, stuck his head into what was now once again a guest room. Blair heard the quiet sigh.

"C'mon, Jim. What're you doing, checking for dust bunnies under the bed?" Sandburg teased gently. "It's not like you can refuse to return my security deposit. I never gave you one."

"Har de har har." Jim emerged, shutting the French doors firmly behind him. The clanking sound was louder than Blair expected, and he jumped just a little. Jim reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder.

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

Blair forced himself to look up at his friend. No, Jim, you're wrong. I have to do this. "Jim, please. We've been over this. Let's just go and have some dinner. They'll be expecting us." He swallowed noisily. "Act like you're happy for me. It's not as if I'm going off to Siberia; I'm just going back to school, here in the same city. Back to finish my unfinished business."

"I mean, you don't have to do this to get your degree. You could re-submit your original dissertation."

"What, are you nuts?"

"No." Jim swallowed, seemed hesitant, then his words came out in a rush. "I could go to the press, go to the University, the Chief and everyone else involved. Lay it all on the table, prove I'm really a Sentinel. You know I could do it, and then they'd have to let you submit your original thesis."

Blair leaned against the doorway, suddenly light-headed. My thesis. My life's work, my poor thesis. Jim, what are you saying? You can't -- Reaction clutched at his gut, and he closed his eyes and fought to keep standing.

"Chief, you okay?" Blair felt a strong hand under his elbow, did not resist as Jim led him over to the couch. "You look like you're about to pass out."

Blair opened his eyes, saw that they were sitting together on the big couch. "I'm... just shocked, that's all. Jim, you would do that? For me?"

Now it was Jim's turn to look away. "If I need to, yes."

"No." Blair shook his head. "No," he repeated, as his resolve strengthened. "I can't let you do that, Jim. That could be the end of your career." He felt tears sting his eyes, too many times in too few days.

"There are lots of things I can do, Chief, besides being a cop."

"No. Jim, you can't. Don't even think about it." He turned to face his friend. "Your abilities, your gifts -- They're like a public trust, man, owned by everyone. The whole city. You can do so much, being who you are. It's just not right. You can't betray all of those people, just to give me something." He closed his eyes again. Dammit, I wanted this party tonight to be happy; now he's going to have me bawling. Jim, I can't let you do this to yourself, to Cascade.

He felt large, gentle hands seize his shoulders. "Blair, if you're sure."

"I am. Jim, you have to stay a sentinel. And a cop. That takes priority." He opened his eyes, blinked furiously at the tears. "But, to have you offer like that -- Jim, you have no idea..." He trailed off lamely.

Jim released him. "I couldn't let you go without saying that," he whispered hoarsely.

Blair laughed shakily. "Aren't we a pair?" He scrubbed at his eyes. "Jim, honest, I'm okay with all of this. I'm excited to be going back to school. I've been so lucky. And this opportunity is just the latest in a string of amazing things that have happened to me these last few years." He fished in his pocket for a Kleenex, blew his nose, and stood up. "We'd better get going, Jim."

"All right. We'll go celebrate your good fortune. But, you are coming back here after dinner? To get the last few things?"

Blair snorted. "I'm not leaving my laptop in my car during dinner, if that's what you mean."

Hours later, Jim stared moodily out the window while Sandburg carried the last box down to his car. He'd offered to help, but had been gently rebuffed with the answer that he'd done enough already.

Hah. What have I done? Simon and I bought him a fancy dinner with his friends, but that party was more for us than it was for him. The party had been an excuse to eat too much, drink too much, and tell outrageous Sandburg stories -- a good, rousing roast. The mood had been lighthearted, festive, and tender. The kid, who had left the drinking to Jim and the others, had hugged everyone several times, kissed all of the women, promised to visit when he could, and made everyone laugh.

And he's right: laughing is better than crying.

Jim turned as he heard footsteps on the stairs: soft, slow, sounding reluctant. Reluctant to leave, or just reluctant to face me? The door swung open to admit his friend.

In spite of himself, Jim smiled at the sight. Just before taking the last boxes down, Blair had shut himself up in the little room once again, and changed into clothes he'd apparently been hiding in his backpack. Faded, torn blue jeans, vintage sneakers, a loose shirt, and the mind-boggling multi-colored vest he'd been wearing the day they first met. The clothes, so atypical of Sandburg the detective, transformed him back into Sandburg the irrepressible grad student. Only a few new lines around the eyes and a slight creeping up of the hairline told the tale of the last few years. Years of hard work, heartbreak, rejection and redemption. Years that had flown by on silent, swift wings nonetheless.

Jim shook off his thoughts and strode forward to seize the shoulders inside that God-awful vest. Not to throw Blair up against the wall, as he'd done on that long-ago day when, confused and threatened by his developing senses, he'd been certain that this long-haired, cocky kid was mocking him on purpose. No, now he wrapped his own long arms around his friend, crushing him close to his chest, feeling the warm life flow back and forth between them, holding him like the brother he'd become.

He felt Blair's arms go around his waist, returning the breathless hug.

Blair mumbled against his shoulder. "Easy, there. I don't want to start my resurrected academic career in a body cast." Blair pulled away a little and looked up.

Jim saw his eyes sparkling with unshed tears. "I'm going to miss you, kid." Jim's voice was hoarse.

"I'll call. I promise. And visit. Often. Just not at work." Blair squirmed, and Jim reluctantly loosened his grip slightly. "The Chancellor may have spies all over town, though. We'd better choose some neutral ground."

"And a password?" Jim teased, remembering the na•ve Sandburg's demand for a password that night on the train when they'd been escorting an important witness.

"Yeah, a password. Ellison, remember?"

"Maybe we need a new one, like Sandburg. Or Bugs Bunny."

"Bugs Bunny?"

"Yeah." Jim reached to ruffle Sandburg's curls. "'What's up, doc?'"

"Jim..." Blair seemed about to laugh and cry at the same time. "Take care of yourself." Blair disentangled himself, stepped away a pace. "I'll keep my cell phone active, and I'll have it on as much as possible. Call me if you have any trouble with your senses. Day or night. I mean that." He held out his hand to Jim. "The best of luck to you, my brother," he said in a half-whisper.

"And to you." Jim gripped the extended hand for a moment, then reluctantly released it.

One Week Later

Jim left the balcony finally, after watching morning steal over the city. Time for some breakfast. Then, a Saturday to myself. He grimaced at the irony. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a Saturday completely to himself, but somehow he couldn't manage to get as excited about it as he'd thought.

Blair had left a week ago, finally climbing into the Volvo that Friday night. Jim had talked to him twice since then, briefly. He seemed to be settling in well, speaking excitedly of variations on the thesis idea and of his seminar class. Jim was reminded of the time Blair had spent at the Academy, when they'd used the telephone to keep in touch and Jim had been back on his own at work. Things had been fairly busy at Major Crimes, but at the same time fairly routine, nothing that had caused Jim to stretch himself very much. So his days weren't all that different from the old days, when Sandburg had been a student the first time around; often the younger man had been too busy to hang out at the station.

But the evenings... Coming home to the empty loft, preparing and eating a meal in front of the soulless eye of the television, staying up too late and finally crawling to bed, exhausted but still somehow finding sleep more elusive a target than normal. He was puzzled; he was introverted by nature, and usually valued his solitude; why should he be this bothered by having the place to himself? But Sandburg always let me have my space, at least this last year or so. Even when neither of us was saying anything, it was nice just being silent with him.

He walked to the fridge, snagged the milk, and rummaged in the cupboard for a box of cereal. Filling a bowl with the crunchy bits, he was just crowning the cereal with milk when the phone rang shrilly. Slopping milk on his old grey sweatshirt, he reached under the pile of papers on the counter to answer the phone.

Jim grimaced as he looked at the phone. It's Simon, down at the station. He'd had Caller ID installed finally, a month ago. He'd teased Sandburg that he'd added the service simply so that he could avoid talking to the series of young females who called the loft for the former anthropology student. Truthfully, he just preferred to know who he was dealing with before he spoke.


"Jim, it's Simon."

"What's up? Why are you at your office?" Jim cradled the phone on his shoulder, scooped up a bite of cereal into his mouth.

"Something's come up." The captain's voice was sober, serious.

Jim chewed and swallowed hurriedly, set the bowl down on the counter. "I can be there in twenty minutes, sir. Just let me --"

"Whoa, whoa, hold on there, Jim. You don't need to go anywhere. In fact, I would prefer it if you stayed put on this one." A pause. Jim reclaimed his cereal bowl and stole another bite. "Jim, when did you last talk to Sandburg?"

"This has something to do with him?"

"It might. I need you to get in touch with him."

Jim crunched down some more Shredded Wheat. "That might be a bit difficult now."

"I thought he was staying with one of his professors or something like that."

"He was. But he just left on Thursday on some kind of extended field trip, to some Indian reservation in Oregon. He'll be gone about six weeks."

Blair's departure out-of-state had been a surprise to Jim. Almost as surprising as Sandburg's enthusiasm for the whole idea. As Jim had held the phone and listened to his former partner spill out the details of the trip, describe the goals of the simple research project, he'd been struck by an eerie sense of having turned the clock back. It's as if that year with the department, and all that mess with his first dissertation, never existed. "It'll help me fill up the time before the new semester starts," Blair had said, "and my expenses will be paid for by the scholarship and by the Anthro department."

"Jim, you still with me?" Simon's voice crackled out of the ear-piece.

"Sorry, Simon. Just taking a couple of bites of breakfast." He set the cereal bowl back down on the counter. "So, why do I need to get in touch with Sandburg?"

"I just got a call this morning from the Department of Corrections. Jim, Harley Spencer has escaped."

"What? He was in a maximum security facility!"

"The DOC thinks it was an inside job. Two guards failed to report in this morning." Jim could hear Simon sigh. "The Marshals are tearing everything up within a fifty-mile radius of the prison. But he could prove to be slippery."

"Jesus, Simon. Spencer hates my guts, but he hates Sandburg more. I need to get a hold of him."

"If he's out of state and out in the middle of nowhere, he's probably a lot safer than if he were here in Cascade. But yeah, call him, remind him to keep the door locked."

"I'll do that. Simon, can't I get in on this manhunt somehow? We caught him once."

"Jim, you and Sandburg caught him on his own property, practically by accident. This is not your job now. Let the Marshals and the state police handle it."

Jim snorted. "I just may find the need for a little road trip."

"You just may find yourself out of your jurisdiction, Detective."

"Not to Oregon. You're right, he's safer there; who's going to know? No, I meant in the search area."

"I catch you hassling the Feds and you're toast, Ellison."

"Nice talking to you, sir." Jim clicked the phone off, then went looking for the piece of paper that had Blair's new temporary message number on it. He said he'd be out of cell range most of the time, but this is the number of the house they're staying at. Hopefully, someone will be there to answer it.

He found the number, dialed it, and swore to himself as he heard the dull tones of a busy signal.

Sandburg, you had better be all right, dammit.

~ Finis ~

E-mail the author of this story, Kim Heggen, at owl@heggen.net
Read Kim's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Shycat's Sentinel Domain
E-mail Faux Paws Productions at fauxpawsproductions@yahoo.com
IN TWO WEEKS on THE SENTINEL: Timor Vita, Part Two (12/6/00, FPP-607) by Kim Heggen
    A vengeful con escapes from prison and goes after Blair. This story is the exciting conclusion of tonight's airing of Timor Vita, Part One (duh ~g~).

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This page last updated 11/22/00.