Too Little, Too Late by Arianna

Too Little, Too Late - Arianna

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Story Concept by Janet.

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Surreal. So, so surreal. Caught in a headlock, Jim treating him like a kid. Everyone singing an odd, childish song with gleeful abandon, but he could feel the tension in the air, the forced cheerfulness - all of them wanting a happy ending and doing their best, as if wishes and good intentions could be enough. He wanted to play along and wished desperately he could believe, if only for these few moments, that it could all be so easy, so light-hearted and simple. But there was no going back. No way to pretend it was all going to work out fine. There was no way to salvage what they'd all had as if the past few days had never happened. Oh, the friendships could last, would last, or he hoped they would. God, he loved them for this, for trying to believe it could be made right and for so clearly wanting to make him whole again.

But it was impossible.

The futility of it all washed over him, robbing him of strength and breath; the aching poignancy of the moment threatened to unman him. Unequal to the charade, too enervated by sleepless nights and painful endings to pretend, he could not sustain the role ascribed to him or continue the mock struggle to escape Jim's playful embrace. Salt burned in his eyes and he sagged to his knees, breaking Jim's grip. Head bowed, shaking with sorrow, he struggled against his unraveling control and took shuddering breaths to contain too rampant emotion.

The singing voices faltered and went silent, leaving only tension in the air. Jim gripped his shoulder, and his voice was uncertain, strained, as he rasped, "Sandburg? You okay?"

Blinking to clear his eyes, he swiped at his nose and let out a long, slow breath. When he lifted his head, his gaze sought Simon and then the others. All but Jim. "Thank you," he said hoarsely. "I love you, all of you. And and I'm grateful for for your support; for your kindness in trying so hard to make me believe I could have a future here, with you. But I think, deep down, we all know it's impossible."

His voice cracked and, to buy time, he pushed himself up onto his feet and raked his hair back from his face. Acutely conscious that Jim was still gripping his shoulder, striving for dignity and wishing he had the energy to conjure a reassuring smile, he went on into the awkward, wretched silence, "I won't ever forget this, though, and even if I can't be here anymore, I hope you know how much I respect and admire all of you. But but I don't belong here now. The time has come for me to move on."

"Oh, Sandy," Megan sighed.

"Blair " Simon began, but his voice caught and his lips thinned as his gaze dropped away.

Stepping forward, away from Jim's grip, he laid his hand on Simon's shoulder. "It's okay," he said soothingly. "It means so much that you wanted to help, but your job is hard enough - you don't need a pariah on your team. You don't owe me anything, Simon." Turning his head, not quite looking at Jim but including him, "None of you do. It was a great ride, but it's over."

"What are you going to do, Blair?" Joel asked.

"I don't know yet, but I've got options," he replied. "I I just need some time to think about next steps, that's all."

Hesitantly, her expression stricken, his mother approached. For her, he found a small, reassuring smile as he lifted his arm and drew her close to his side. Shaking his head, he chided, "Nice try, Mom, but we both know how you really feel about the idea of me being a cop."

She laughed shakily, close to tears. "I'm so sorry, sweetie," she whispered.

"I know," he murmured. "But when there's no going back, we have to move forward, right? Nobody died, life goes on, and there are always possibilities. Change isn't necessarily bad."

She sniffed and nodded, but seemed bereft of words. Everyone seemed lost for words and, though it was true that nobody had died, the atmosphere was distinctly funereal.

He dreaded it, but he had to face Jim. Looking back over his shoulder, he lifted his gaze to his friend's eyes and the sorrow he saw there was devastating. But he couldn't deal with that in front of everyone. Swallowing hard, he said as evenly as he could manage, "C'mon, man, I'll take you home." For a moment, he thought Jim might argue, but then his friend simply bowed his head and nodded.

Before he could move off through the crowd, Simon covered his hand. "You need anything, you got it. Understand?"

He nodded, squeezed Simon's shoulder, and then shepherded his mother past his friends, shaking hands and mutely hugging people as he passed. Finally, they made it to the hall, Jim having picked up his carryall and limping wordlessly behind them. Jim looked like he was about to collapse, so Blair matter-of-factly took his bag, and lightly gripped his arm to lend some support.

Silence hung over them like a shroud and Blair was thankful that the elevator came quickly. Stepping inside, he pushed the button for the basement, and then shifted quickly to the back of the car, his gaze fixed on the floor so he wouldn't have to see the contempt and disgust in the eyes of everyone who entered at each subsequent stop. He could feel his mother trembling beside him, and Jim's tense rigidity at his other shoulder as they all endured the slow minutes until they could escape into the underground garage.

When they reached his car, Naomi squeezed into the back, and he helped Jim slide stiffly into the passenger seat. As he drove out of the garage, knowing it was for the last time, his heart twisted with overwhelming grief.

Nobody spoke during the drive to the loft, but he heard his mother quietly sniffling in the back seat and, in the rearview mirror, saw her dabbing at her eyes. Jim stared stonily out the side window and unconsciously rubbed his aching leg. When they got home, Blair was glad there was a parking spot close to the entrance, and he helped them both out of the small car.

"Lean on me," he said quietly, putting his arm around Jim's waist. Blair was glad his friend didn't resist the help, because Jim's pallor and the lines of pain etched around his mouth and eyes made it clear that he'd pushed too hard that day and had already been on his feet too long.

His mother hustled ahead to hold the heavy exterior door open for them and then she slid past to push the elevator button. Again, they rode in silence, avoiding one another's eyes.

Inside the apartment, Blair took one look at the long flight of steps up to the bed and shook his head. No way could Jim get up there, not until he'd rested and maybe taken something to help ease his pain. He steered Jim toward the sofa and, once he'd slipped his partner's jacket off his shoulders, helped him lie down and carefully lifted his legs. Behind him, he heard Naomi put the kettle on to boil before she disappeared into his bedroom.

"You get something from the hospital for the pain?" he asked softly.

"In my coat pocket." Jim's voice was flat, his eyes already closed.

Blair went to the kitchen, got a glass of water and returned to the living room. Retrieving the small vial of medication from Jim's coat pocket, he read the directions and shook out two tablets. "Here you go," he offered, and then supported Jim's head while he washed down the pills. Once Jim settled with a deep sigh, he unfolded the afghan and layered it over his friend. "Try to sleep," he counseled.

After he hung up their jackets, he went into the kitchen to make tea for Naomi, who he could hear speaking on the phone in his room. Vaguely wondering who she was talking to, he pulled a beer from the fridge and wandered out to the balcony to get some air.

Staring blindly over the city toward the water, he wondered what he was going to do. He felt shell-shocked, muddled by emotional overload and physical exhaustion, too overwhelmed to think clearly. He still had the sense of being captured in a surreal, anguished dream that he couldn't seem to wake from. With a sigh, he reflected that Jim was hurting, too - both physically and emotionally - and Blair was pretty sure his partner would be feeling rejected by his decision that afternoon. His mother was falling apart, the events of the last week more harshly real than her endless search for enlightenment. Rubbing his temple, he closed his eyes against his awareness that they both felt bad, very bad, about everything that had happened. He just didn't know how to help them feel any better about what could never be undone.

Hard to help them when he felt like such a basket-case himself.

He needed space and quiet, to think. And he badly needed something to do with his life, some place to be, something to contribute to that mattered, to fill the gaps left in his life by the loss of Rainier and the PD, and to give him an income. Though he knew with utter certainty that he had to move out of the loft, he didn't know where to go. He really didn't want to leave Cascade because he hoped, despite everything, that he and Jim could remain good friends. If he didn't stay in the city, he was pretty sure he'd lose the friendship, too, and the thought of losing Jim, of never spending time with him, never being close to him again, damned near killed him.

His throat tightened with emotions that he fought hard to contain. He'd kept a grip for months now, never giving away by look, gesture, or word, how his feelings for Jim had changed after the fountain. At first, he'd thought it was all just a weird emotional echo of the merging of their souls - for that's what had happened in the jungle, what had brought him back when he'd been stone cold dead. The warmth, life, energy, vibrancy and love in Jim's soul had revived him.

Jim had to know that, right? Grimacing, he wondered if, maybe, because it was so very personal, so intimate, Jim just couldn't bring himself to ever discuss it. But their souls had merged. Blair suspected that, in some ways, their souls had remained entwined, a part of one another. No way to prove that, though; and the way they'd been at each other's throats, irritable and off-balance ever since he'd awakened in the hospital, he often doubted his own certainty.

About the only thing he knew for sure was that, ever since, he'd been helplessly in love with Jim Ellison.

He'd thought it a temporary aberration, and had been sure the unexpected and unsettling emotions would fade. But far from diminishing over time, his love had only grown stronger until it had become an ever-constant awareness that half drove him crazy. Somehow, things had been so much simpler when he'd only loved Jim like a brother and the best friend he'd ever have.

Not that he wanted in any way to diminish that platonic love because it was still there, too. The 'I'd gladly die for you' joyful devotion that had held him by Jim's side for years was something unique in his existence and he didn't know anyone else who'd ever felt that deeply for a friend. But this new love was an aching and relentless anguish that could never be assuaged. Still, he'd rather live with the pain than never be near Jim again. He had it so bad that he wasn't sure he could even live without Jim. Life would lose all luster and meaning, all purpose; life just wouldn't be worth living without Jim.

All those layers of love had been his shield when he'd stepped up to that microphone last week and gave up everything of substance that he was - his career, his credibility, his reputation for integrity, his daily work with Jim and even his home. He'd made the greatest ritual sacrifice in his power to save Jim, to give him back his life and privacy, to end his anger and grief and helplessness at being made to feel like a freak of nature. Nothing else would have served in those urgent, critical hours when the Iceman was stalking Jim and his charge. Nothing else would have restored the balance for Jim in time to make any real difference.

He didn't regret his decision, though he'd felt the deep pain of that sacrifice in the past week as he'd boxed up his life, severed one connection after another with people he cared a great deal about at Rainier and Major Crime, and abandoned the work he loved, both at the university and at the PD. Given the choice to undo what was done, he'd choose the same action again for all kinds of reasons including professional ethics and integrity - but, mostly, because of love.

He was going to need that shield when he finally worked up the courage to tell Jim he had to move out, at least for awhile, until the heat of the media's attention finally cooled. But first he had to figure out where to go. Only he couldn't think straight. Awash in churning, uncharted rapids, barely keeping his head above water, he didn't have a clue about where the river was taking him - and he hadn't had a spare moment to assess the shoreline to see if he could climb out onto dry, stable, safe ground. He had to keep himself afloat for his sake and for Jim's - and even for Naomi's. If, overwhelmed by all that had happened, he metaphorically drowned, he knew they'd never recover. She wouldn't be able to live with the guilt. And Jim's innate integrity - over staying silent about the truth - would eat him alive.

Looking up at the sky, he searched the endless blue and then closed his eyes. In his heart, he wished for respite, for some measure of peace in the chaos. He needed a sign that would lead him toward a place to be, at least for a space of time, and something meaningful, purposeful, to do.

The sound of the door sliding open startled him. Turning, he saw Naomi step out to join him, her arms crossed to ward off the chill of the air, and a cup of hot tea steaming in one hand. He smiled and lifted an arm. With a poignant look of gratitude, she accepted the invitation, her arm circling his waist as he drew her close.

For a moment they both stood quietly, looking out at the bay, and then she said, "I have to go. You and Jim need some time and privacy. I've made arrangements for a flight in a couple hours, to go back to Los Angeles."

He let out a slow breath and nodded. While he wished he could urge her to stay, he and Jim both needed to be able to talk without anyone else present. "Thank you." Turning to her, he kissed her cheek. "I love you, Mom," he affirmed. "Believe me when I say that nothing in this world will ever change that."

Tears welled in her eyes and she pressed her trembling lips together tightly as she nodded. "I believe you," she finally managed to choke out brokenly. "I'm just so, so sorry."

"I know," he replied, tightening his grip around her shoulders. "But things will work out, you'll see. Things'll be fine. I'll be fine."

"I love you, Blair," she whispered. "More than life. More than anything. And I believe in you. You you've always been special. You have a light inside. I do know that, eventually, things will work out for you." She sighed heavily and sniffed. "I just wish I hadn't made your road harder than it needed to be."

"Well, like I said the other day, nothing happens without a reason. There's always a purpose," he said gently. "And so I have to think that this was all meant to happen, or something equally as as demanding of change in my life. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right? I'm a long way from being dead, Mom. I still have so much that is good, like my Masters - that has to be worth something. And lots of skills I've picked up along the way. Finding work won't be a problem. I just need some time to think about what I really want to do with my life now."

"Will you and Jim be okay?" she asked very softly, with a quick glance over her shoulder.

"I hope so," he said. "We've been through a lot over the years; I hope we'll be able to get through this, too."

"Can he can he manage at work without your help?" she asked, gnawing anxiously at her lip. "I can't bear the thought that what I did could put his life at risk."

He looked away and gave a small shrug. But then he nodded. "He'll be okay. He's got a really good handle on his senses. Really hasn't needed me for months now. Been working more without me than with me. And I'll be around if he ever does need me; that won't change."

She nodded, wanting to believe him. Then, reluctantly, she murmured, "Well, I guess I'd better call a cab."

"Oh, hey, no," he said quickly. "I'll drive you, no problem. Honest. But you're right. If you're packed and ready, we should go."

Jim appeared to be asleep when they went inside and Blair couldn't tell if he was faking or not. So he left a note on the coffee table to say where he'd gone and that he'd be back soon. And then they quietly let themselves out of the apartment.

**

Naomi insisted that he drop her at the curb and not bother to park and go inside with her. Relieved, achingly weary, he was glad to accept. She hugged him tight, cupped his cheek with her hand and tenderly kissed his brow. And then she was gone.

He wondered if it would be another year before he saw her again.

Not yet ready to go home, he drove to the harbor where he walked slowly along the boardwalk, found a bench and sat down. Huddling in his jacket against the brisk, salt-scented wind, he stared out at the water and tried to sort out the fragments of his life.

So much had so fundamentally changed in such a short time. Two weeks ago, he's been a grad student finishing up his dissertation, a teaching fellow with a pretty solid reputation, and Jim's backup on the job. Two weeks ago, he'd thought well, he'd thought they were doing okay. Things had been rocky for awhile even before Alex had turned their lives upside down, but they'd kept going and things had even seemed to be getting better again. Oh, not as easy, as comfortable, as their friendship had been a year ago, maybe, but solid.

And then it had all fallen apart.

Reflecting upon the last time he and Jim had walked along the harbor, Blair's fists clenched and he stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets as he remembered how badly Jim's distrust of him had hurt. If his friend had punched him in the gut, it would have been less painful. Pressing his lips together, bowing his head, he recalled how he'd tried to believe that it was just shock and so very understandable that Jim had reacted with anger and distrust. It was his usual reaction when he was threatened or blindsided, and he had every reason to be upset. Every reason. But after all the years they'd been together, Jim's quick assumption that the release of the dissertation had been an act of deliberate betrayal had left him reeling.

Blair had thought their relationship was stronger than that; that Jim would know - had to know - he'd never do such a thing, never betray Jim that way. But, as the hours and the days had passed, Jim hadn't calmed down. Nor did he retreat from his initial anger and assumptions of betrayal, even after he knew without doubt that it had all been an accident, and that it had been Naomi who had inadvertently let the genie out of the bottle.

Events had escalated into chaos and Jim had behaved as if the media interference at the rally and the attack the next day that left Simon and Megan so seriously injured - an attack that would never have happened if Jim had captured the assassin the night before - was all Blair's fault. And, agreeing with him, Blair certainly blamed himself. Oh, he hadn't deliberately set all the events in motion, but he had left Jim's name in the paper when he should never have referred to his 'subject' by name.

Bleakly, he looked out again at the water, at the barges and container ships slowly passing to and from the docks. He'd been stupid to use Jim's name in the draft but he'd just never imagined that anyone else, except Jim himself, would ever see that document. He'd just thought it would be easier for Jim to read if he wasn't cast so dispassionately as 'the subject', wouldn't feel so much like a lab rat. As he'd told Jim, he would have found a way to ensure Jim's identity wouldn't be compromised in the final document, but Jim hadn't cared about his good intentions, only the actuality of what had happened. And, sighing, he had to agree that good intentions hadn't been enough, not nearly enough, not when balanced against all the terrible things that had happened.

Throughout it all, Jim hadn't been open to talking about what they might do to mitigate the leak of the document, or how they might respond to the media's hysterical demands for information and confirmation. Yeah, sure, Jim had been consumed by the need to stop Zeller, fair enough. But but it had felt like Jim loathed him, loathed the sight of him. Couldn't stand to be near him and, ultimately, wanted nothing more to do with him. Wanted him to just go away. Permanently go away.

Even after Jim had understood that it had been an accident, that Blair hadn't acted out of ulterior and personal motives of greed and a desire for fame, Jim had only been able to focus on how he was now seen as a freak, and that his father and brother were upset. Jim had just wanted to go back to the way things had been before before they'd ever met. Jim had said it was over, that it was time to let go and move on, and then Jim had stormed out of the loft because, all too evidently, Jim couldn't stand to remain in the same room with him.

Had he deserved that? He could understand the anger. And though he regretted it profoundly, he could even understand Jim's despair at feeling like a freak. Despite all their years together, he'd never been able to get Jim to see that he wasn't a freak but a miracle - a wondrous, awesome miracle. Blair's throat thickened and his eyes stung as he sat despondently by the water. He couldn't understand and couldn't get past the fact that their friendship and all those years of support had, in the end, apparently counted for nothing with Jim. As far as Jim had been concerned, it seemed he was disposable, something to be discarded and all they had so painstakingly achieved appeared meaningless to his friend. Very clearly, Jim wished none of it had ever transpired; if Jim could have turned back the clock so that his senses had never come online and he'd never met Blair, he would have done so, in a heartbeat.

Blair drew a shuddering breath. Curling forward against the anguish he felt, he crossed his arms and closed his eyes. He couldn't get past that. God, it hurt. Worse than dying had hurt. Sure, later when the heat was off and Jim's security had been restored, Jim had told him he was a great friend, as well as the best partner, and that he had helped Jim a lot. But when the going was tough, when the pressure was still on, none of that had mattered a damn.

The most important person in his life, the man he loved with every atom of his being, hadn't cared enough about him to want to even try to work things out together. Jim had only wanted him gone, as if he'd never been. Stupid, but it even hurt that Jim had cared more about what his father and Steven had thought during those terrible days, though Jim had been estranged from them both for most of his life, than Jim had cared about him. Despite the years of being together and all they'd shared and been through, William and Steven's concerns had meant more to Jim than having Blair in his life.

Tears leaked past his lashes and he raised a hand to cover his trembling lips, to hold the sob back. He had to face it, accept it. Jim might appreciate him, what he'd done both last week and during the past years, but Jim didn't love him. Not as a brother of sorts; not even as a friend. Jim didn't love him and never had, never would. What hurt most of all was the inescapable fact that Jim didn't trust him, not when the chips were down and the world had gone crazy. Jim didn't know with unshakeable certainty that Blair would never, ever, betray him. If Jim had known that, had believed in him, they could have attacked the problem together and decided how to fix it. But Jim had shut him out.

Leaning back against the bench, trembling with misery, Blair struggled to overcome his emotions. If he got mired in the muck of his devastation, he wouldn't be able to function at all, let alone face all that still had to be done. But grief filled every crevice of his being, muffling his ability to think, sapping his energy. Life without Jim would be empty, devoid of meaning. Desperately, he struggled against the grim truth that it was already over. Whether he stayed or left, nothing could ever be the same again. He could never pretend that he mattered in Jim's life. He was holding onto the hope that they could still be friends because he feared that when he left, he wouldn't want to face life at all; without their friendship, he truly would have nothing of meaning in his life.

Staring at the water, he found himself thinking how easy it would be to slip into its silence, to let everything go, to give up the struggle to breathe. What was the point of going on? His mother was flying back to her own life. Jim Jim didn't love him, didn't need him - hell, it was all over, wasn't it? He had no home, no work, no life and he was nothing more than an albatross now, an ever-present danger to Jim's security if he tried to hold onto even a shred of what they'd had. He could just close his eyes and nothing would hurt anymore. The need to escape the pain, the desire for oblivion, and his craving for the peace the water promised were very nearly overpowering. Though his spirit rebelled against the virulent self-pity, the gently lapping waves were mesmerizing and so so tempting.

Pressing his eyes closed, gripping the bench in a physical effort to hold on, to resist the allure of that shimmering peace, he whispered brokenly to the Universe, "Help me. Please. I'm so tired and, and scared. I I can't do it all myself. Please."

The sudden ringing of his cell phone shattered the powerful spell the water was weaving, and he jerked back from the edge into awareness of the world around him. Trembling at having been so close to losing his grip, to giving up, he hastily pulled the phone from his pocket and flipped it open. "Hello?" he answered, thinking it was probably Jim wondering where he was.

"Blair? It's Orvelle. Orvelle Wallace."

"Orvelle," he exclaimed softly, straightening. "Hey, how are you?"

"I wondered if you might have time to get together. There's something I wanted to talk to you about."

Mystified by the request, Blair tried to wrap his head around the surprise of hearing from Wallace. "Uh, sure," he stammered. "When?"

"Would you have time to meet now? At the Coffee Mill restaurant near the stadium?"

"Um, yeah; it'll take me about twenty minutes to get there," he replied. Frowning, he asked, "What's wrong? Do you need to talk to Jim?"

"No, I need to talk to you. I'll explain when I see you."

"Okay, man. Twenty minutes. The Coffee Mill. I'll be there."

Shoving the phone back into his pocket, Blair scrubbed his face and ran his fingers through his hair before standing to walk to his car. He was perplexed by the unexpected call and couldn't imagine what would cause Orvelle to want to see him so urgently. Hell, these days, most people would cross the street to avoid seeing him or talking to him. Shivering at the thought of how enthralled he'd been moments before by the peace the water offered, he told himself it really didn't matter what Orvelle wanted. At the very least he was being offered a timely and very much-needed distraction, a reason to keep moving and breathing. Beyond that, Orvelle had become a good friend, one he treasured. How many guys ever got to know their childhood heroes, after all? And how many were lucky enough to find that those people really were heroes? If there was anything he could do for the man, he'd be glad to render assistance.

Quickening his pace, he hoped whatever the problem was it would be something he could help with, a lifeline he could cling to. God, he badly needed to be able to help someone with something, if only to justify his continued existence on earth.

**

Orvelle was already waiting in a booth in the far corner next to the window, away from the other mid-afternoon seekers of caffeine in the bright coffee shop. The older man waved and Blair nodded in acknowledgement, but otherwise kept his head down as he hastened through the restaurant. Even so, he heard people whisper and saw some pointing as he went by, and he could only hope his few minutes of infamy on national television would soon be forgotten.

He'd barely slipped into the booth opposite the coach when the waitress appeared to refill Orvelle's cup and take his order. Not hungry, needing the stimulation, he decided on coffee, black. "So, what's up?" he asked the coach, hoping to keep the conversation focused on Orvelle and avoid any discussion of his own recent notoriety.

Wallace studied him for a moment, compassion in his eyes, and then he glanced around the restaurant, his gaze hardening to discourage those who were staring at them. Once the spectators had returned to their own business, he leaned his elbows on the table. "How're you doing?" he asked with simple directness.

"Oh, things have been, uh, unsettled." Blair shrugged diffidently as his gaze fell away and he toyed with the cup of coffee. So much for hoping Orvelle would ignore current events.

"Uh huh," the coach grunted. "I saw that press conference last week and I've been thinking about it ever since."

Blair swallowed to moisten his dry mouth and throat, but didn't know what to say. He settled for a tight nod and concentrated on blowing over the hot coffee before taking a sip.

"I don't believe a word of it," Orvelle said.

Startled, Blair's gaze flashed up to meet his. "Uh, thanks, but -"

"But nothing," Wallace cut in firmly. With a short shake of his head, he leaned closer and lowered his voice. "I know you and what kind of man you are. No way would you use Jim or cheat to get your PhD. And I know Jim - seen him in action."

Blair carefully set his mug on the formica table top. "I'm sorry, but I'm really not up to talking about this," he murmured and tried again to redirect the conversation. "What did you want to see me about, Orvelle?"

"Son, I want to talk about you. I'm worried about you," Orvelle told him solemnly, a frown of concern puckering his brow. "You were about the only one who believed in me when everyone else was ready to see me as a murderer, and you helped prove my innocence. And not so very long ago, you did your best to fight off Kincaid and his men until Jim got us loose. You're a good, decent, brave man, and you deserve better cards than what life has recently dealt you. I want to help, if I can."

Much to his humiliation, Blair found himself on the edge of losing it. His throat tightened and tears glazed his eyes. Of all those he knew in Cascade, all his former colleagues at Rainier, his erstwhile friends, none but those in MCU had given him the benefit of the doubt or had expressed any concern for him, and he figured they had been motivated as much by guilt as by any genuine desire to keep him around. Certainly, none had offered any help, except for Simon, and guilt had factored into that, as well. He took a shuddery breath and sniffed as he swiped away the tears before they could fall.

With a quick glance at Orvelle, he said unsteadily, "That's good of you, Orvelle, but but you don't owe me anything, you know? And, and, I'm not sure what kind of help I need. But I appreciate it. I really do."

Reaching over the table to grip his arm in support, the coach said, "Hear me out, okay? I've got a proposal for you. And, well, you'd be doing me a favor, too, if you'd accept."

"What proposal?" he asked with another sniff, desperate to talk about something other than himself.

Leaning back against the seat, Orvelle replied quietly, "Not many people know this, but I've set up a community center for poor, mostly black, kids. There's a basketball court in the gym, and a games room with a lounge at one end where they can just hang out. You know, to get them off the streets and away from the local gang. Give 'em a place to be." Leaning forward, his expression grave, he went on with urgent intensity, "I need someone I trust to run the place, teach 'em how to play, do some counseling, maybe tutor those having trouble in school - which is probably most of 'em. Somebody to be a kind of big brother to them, I guess. Someone who's there when they need somebody. I'll spend as much time as I can down there, but I just can't be around all the time. And I mean all the time. These kids, well, their problems aren't nine to five. There's a furnished apartment on the top of the place and I'd like you to live there, to be available to them if they get into trouble or need a place to go."

Blair gaped at him. "You'd trust me to do that? I mean - would they trust me? Given what ."

"Son, I trust you with my life, and there ain't nobody down there that hasn't made some mistakes," Orvelle said with wry warmth. "These kids need to see that making mistakes, even big ones, aren't the end of the world. That they can learn and go on, not just give up." He paused, his intelligent eyes holding Blair's. "I'm not saying I believe you made any mistakes. I figure you did what you had to do to protect your best friend. But I guess not a lot of people will know that, huh? And you don't even want them to know it, or what was the point? And I don't expect you to stay there forever; I know you got your own life to live. But, well, I thought maybe as a temporary arrangement, maybe six months or a year? It would be more than those kids have now, an' maybe, well, maybe you could use the time to think about where you go from here."

Blair sat back and stared sightlessly out of the window as he let the possibility of what Orvelle was offering him sink in. Less than an hour before, he'd been wishing desperately for some idea of where to go, needing a place to be, work to do that was meaningful. Orvelle was offering him everything he could have hoped for. Slowly, he nodded. He could do this. The work would be busy and keep him from thinking about his own problems. A sad smile ghosted over his lips. A readymade apartment was immediately available, so he could move out of the loft, like he knew he had to do, however much he wished he could stay.

His gaze returning to Orvelle's earnest scrutiny, he nodded again. "You believe in angels? 'Cause you sure work miracles, man," he said with a sense of awe, and then added more briskly, "I accept. And I'm really grateful. This is exactly what I needed right now. Everything I needed. Thank you."

A relieved smile lit the older man's face. "Good, I was hoping you'd say that. Let's go over there now and I can show you around and give you the keys."

"All right," Blair agreed, deciding to act before he could falter and change his mind. "Let's do it."

**

The new, as yet unopened, Community Center was an old, broken-down gym located in the middle of a block in an inner-city neighborhood. The peeling paint on the solid timber walls was worn and faded, but a fresh coat would quickly spruce it up. The sidewalks were cracked and there were tenements above the shops and businesses that lined the street. As he parked behind Orvelle, Blair glanced at the small businesses that were ubiquitous in such tawdry neighborhoods: a bakery, a pawnshop, an adult movie theatre, a delicatessen, a Chinese restaurant, a convenience store, and a pizza place. Kids, mostly African-American, but some with evident Hispanic roots, loitered in small groups, leaning on buildings and against wooden telephone poles or the steel supports of the street lights.

"Hey, man, when's the place opening up?" one tall, thin kid called to Orvelle while he was unlocking the door.

Orvelle looked to Blair, who replied, "In the next day or so, soon as I get set up inside. My name's Blair Sandburg and I'm looking forward to getting to know you."

"Cool," the teenager drawled laconically, but he grinned and nodded, giving Blair a hopeful feeling that the local kids were looking forward to having this new place to hang out.

Inside, Orvelle flicked on the lights and showed Blair around. The whole place smelled of old sweat and badly needed some basic restoration, but paint and elbow grease would work wonders. As he followed Orvelle through the building, Blair noted the new, sturdy furniture in the large games room that contained a ping-pong table, several card tables and metal folding chairs, shelves full of board and card games, a sink, fridge and microwave and, at the far end, a cluster of chairs and sofas. The walls were bare and dismal, but some bright posters would easily enliven the space. Further along the cement hall, there were showers and dressing rooms for both girls and boys, and a laundry room with industrial-sized washer and dryer as well as a large quantity of towels. Orvelle ushered him into the spacious gym. The old, parquet flooring was chipped and grungy, but the basketball hoops, electronic score display high on the wall, and taped-on blue and red court lines were new. The equipment supply room in the corner was already well stocked with soccer, volleyballs and basketballs, weights, badminton rackets and birdies, nets and related sports gear.

"Looks good," Blair approved, winning a smile from the older man.

Orvelle led him back through the building to the entry where a steep flight of steps led up one side of the building to the second floor. Upstairs, beyond a plain, locked door, the apartment wasn't fancy, but it was clean and had already been painted and the plumbing modernized. No bathtub, but the shower was a generous size. New appliances gleamed in the small kitchen, and the furniture in the living room and bedroom looked comfortable. The blues and greens Orvelle had chosen for the decorating were cool and soothing. There was a television, a good quality sound system, and everything he could need, from towels and sheets to dishes, cutlery, and pots and pans; even an empty bookcase for his collection.

"This is great," he said appreciatively. Looking up at Orville, he added, "If you can supply the paint, I'll organize the kids into work crews to clean up the front and the inside."

"Consider it done," Wallace agreed with a nod. "I'll have it and the other supplies you'll need delivered tomorrow morning. And I'll leave the contract for you on the kitchen counter. Along with the apartment, the job pays four thousand a month. I've already taken care of insurance and legal liability issues with my lawyer and accountant."

Listening, thinking with no little relief that the pay was more than reasonable, Blair rubbed his mouth as he took another look around. "Jim's recovering from being shot in the leg. He's doing pretty good, but I want to be sure he can manage on his own before I move in here."

Laying a hand on his shoulder, Orvelle nodded. "I understand. The place is here when you're ready. I appreciate you agreeing to do this, Blair."

"Oh, hey, no, I'm the one thanking you," Blair replied stoutly. He blew a long breath, nodded resolutely to himself, and then turned to lead the way back downstairs. Outside, he accepted a set of keys, shook Orvelle's hand, waved at the kids, and then got into his car to head back to the loft.

On the way, he stopped at the grocery store to stock up on everything Jim would need for the next week or so, until he could easily get around again on his own. When he got home, he sat in the car for several minutes, working himself up to facing Jim and saying what had to be said.

**

Blair let himself in as quietly as he could, given he was encumbered with several grocery bags, but he saw immediately that Jim was sitting up with his leg propped on a cushion on the coffee table, watching something on television. His friend looked pale, haggard and grouchy. Yep, definitely not a happy sentinel. "Hey," he said, restraining the urge to sigh, as he hefted the bags to the counter. "How's your leg?"

"Fine."

"Uh huh," Blair grunted. Pulling off his jacket, he hung it up and asked, "You checked your pain dial lately?"

"I said I'm fine."

"O-kay," he replied and busied himself putting things away. That chore completed, he made a quick tuna casserole and put it into the oven to bake. Once that was done, he made a salad to go with it.

And then he'd run out of things to do.

Other than pack.

He thought longingly of a cool beer, but plugged in the kettle, instead. Tea would be much more calming. And Jim couldn't drink beer while he was taking the pain meds. "You want tea, coffee, juice, water?" he called quietly.

"I'm fine."

Well, this was going well. He made himself a mug of tea and couldn't put it off any longer. When he wandered into the living room and sat on the love seat, Jim turned off the television. "You finished avoiding me?" Jim asked tightly.

His brows lifting, Blair blew on the hot liquid and nodded. "You ready to talk?" he countered.

Jim's face was expressionless, his eyes giving nothing away as he studied Blair for a long moment. But then the chill thawed and sorrow filled his eyes. "You look like shit, Chief," he muttered.

Huffing a hollow, humorless laugh, Blair raked his hair back off his face and sank against the cushion. "You're not looking all that terrific, yourself," he replied. "Seriously, how's the leg?"

Jim sighed and rubbed it. "Not bad," he allowed. "Better than earlier."

"You know why I had to turn down Simon's offer, right?" Blair went on carefully.

"Yeah," Jim sighed and scraped his face with his palms. "Credibility issues. The media. Carrying a weapon."

"You gonna be okay on your own?"

"I heard you tell Naomi I would be, so I guess so," Jim said, sounding forlorn. "Guess I'll have to be."

Grimacing, Blair shook his head. The last thing he needed was for Jim to have a crisis of confidence because that could get him killed. But he also knew that, as good as Jim's control of his senses was, he still needed backup to keep him focused and out of trouble. No way could he leave with Jim believing he could go it alone.

Though it took a supreme effort of will to sound matter of fact and not reveal his abject grief that he could no longer be the partner Jim needed, he forced a wry smile and replied with cool objectivity, "You'll be fine. You've been working without me most of the time now for months. But if you want, I can brief Simon and whoever else you want - Joel, maybe? - on how to help you focus and and what to do if you zone. But that shouldn't happen often, if at all, providing you don't push yourself to the max, working 'round the clock. You've gotten good at anchoring one sense with another. Just, uh, just remember you need backup, Jim. Don't go all lone wolf, okay?"

Jim nodded, his gaze hooded. "Yeah, okay, you're right. I've, uh, learned a lot in the last few years, Chief, and not just about my senses." He hesitated and then met Blair's steady gaze. "I've learned to count on having a partner I can trust and rely on without question. I won't forget that anytime soon."

Nearly undone by the emotions that surged through him and tightened in his chest, Blair swiftly looked away. God, it meant so much, too much, to hear those words and it hurt so damned bad at the same time. If only if only Jim had .

But he forced the thoughts away before his regret and anger that it hadn't had to end like this overwhelmed him. What happened hadn't been Jim's fault or, at least, not all Jim's fault. He'd written the paper that had blown his world apart, and he had to live with that. Silence fell between them as Blair sipped his tea. When it grew to be uncomfortable, needing to just finish what had to be done, he murmured, "You figure out the rest of it?"

"Rest of it?" Jim frowned. "What rest of it?"

"That I can't stay here," Blair replied very quietly. "That the media and a whole lot of other people would wonder why I was still here, given what I did."

Astonished confusion filled Jim's face and, briefly, he was rendered speechless. And then he exclaimed, "You're moving out? When? Where? Sandburg, what the hell are you going to do?"

His gaze falling away, Blair gave a small shrug. "I'll be okay. I've got a job and a place to live, temporarily, at least. Until well, until I make longer term plans."

"Just like that?" Jim asked, anger seeping into his voice. "Without talking to me about it, you made all these plans? What job? Slinging hash in some diner?"

Blair stiffened defensively at the tone. "I've got skills, man. What did you think? That I'd just sit around here and sponge off you the rest of my life? C'mon, Jim. Get real. I'm nearly thirty years old and I've been supporting myself for a long time. Of course, I got a job."

When Jim just glared at him, the leash he held on his own anger slipped. "As far as talking to you about it, what's to discuss? It's a little too late, don't you think?" he argued. "I mean, you didn't want to talk when there was maybe something we could have done ." Fiercely reining in his emotions, he swallowed the accusations before they got out of hand. He didn't want to do this; didn't want to let the anger he'd buried swamp him. And he sure couldn't afford to let the pain get out of control. Lifting his hands for peace, he said more evenly, "You don't owe me anything, okay? I can take care of myself. I'll I'll be staying in the city so you can always reach me if you need to."

"So that's it, huh?" Jim grunted, turning his face away and crossing his arms. "When are you going?"

"I'll stay until you're okay to be on your own."

"Well, don't let me hold you back," he growled. "I've been taking care of myself a lot longer than you have."

Blair winced but he was too wrung out to debate the issue. Standing, he took his empty mug to the kitchen, rinsed it out and put it in the dishwasher. And then he went to his room to start packing. Behind him, Jim clicked the television back on.

An hour later, Blair took the casserole from the oven and served up their dinner. But neither was hungry and both mostly just picked at their food.

"You okay for money?" Jim asked, breaking the brittle silence.

"Yeah," he nodded. "My student loans are under control and, well, since I had the fellowship and wasn't really doing any active research for the past year, I didn't have any outstanding grants. I'm okay."

"You keep saying that," Jim grated as he pushed his plate away and leaned his elbows on the table. "But, after what's happened, what you did, how can you be 'okay'?"

Standing, Blair gathered up their plates. "I did what I had to do," he replied wearily as he moved into the kitchen. "I'm not sorry about it and I don't regret it. I'm just sorry that it all went so bad in the first place. But it did, and I fixed it, so it's done."

He rinsed off the plates and utensils, covered the remnants of the salad and casserole and put them into the fridge and, all the while, he was conscious of Jim watching him. Stifling a sigh, he turned around to face his friend. "You got what you wanted, Jim. Things are back to the way they were. As far as anyone knows, you're a good cop and that's it. Your life " he looked around, "your home - you get it all back, just the way you said you wanted it."

Jim's gaze hardened and he said impatiently, "I'm getting a little tired of the martyr routine, Chief. I didn't ask you to fall on your sword."

Crossing his arms, Blair leaned against the counter. "Didn't you? Didn't you expect me to fix it? Just make it all go away? Didn't you stand right over there and tell me that it was over and it was time to give up and move on? And didn't you just walk out and leave it to me to do whatever it took?"

Jim swallowed and turned his face away. "I never expected "

"No, you expected me to take the money and run; to become famous on the ashes of your life," Blair went on relentlessly, unable to stop himself once he'd started. "You said, afterward, that I'd been a great friend and the best partner you'd ever had. Well, Jim, I gotta tell ya, if that's the way you really feel when you could also believe I'd betray you in such fundamental ways, you don't have a clue about what friendship and partnership really mean. If you did if you did ." But his voice broke and fell away. Biting his lip, he shook his head. "I don't think we should talk about this anymore. You're in pain and I'm pretty close to cracking up. And I have to finish packing."

"Blair " Jim began, but Blair lifted his hands and turned his face away as he determinedly strode to his room.

When Jim followed him and leaned against the doorjamb, Blair sighed and closed his eyes, seeking strength. Without turning to face his friend, he said with heavy sorrow, "You want the truth? Well, the truth is, I don't want to go. I don't know if I would ever have left of my own choice. So, it's probably good, in some ways, that all this happened to force me to get out of your life. To leave you alone. 'Cause you don't need me anymore; I know that. And after all that has happened, all that was said, I really can't stay, can I? Not now that I know what you really think of me. What you think I'd be capable of doing."

Miserably, he looked at Jim, who was standing with his head bowed, studying the floor. "You were hurt and angry, and I understand that. The situation just blew up, got so out of control it was horrible. But I didn't hurt you. Well, guess what? I'm hurt and angry, too. Not about losing my job or career - hell, I was getting sick of the academic scene, anyway. I much preferred working with you and had for a long time. So it wasn't the situation that hurt me, Jim. You hurt me. Worse than anyone ever has. Because you didn't believe in me. Didn't trust me. After more than three years of working together, living together, if you don't trust me now - regardless of all the evidence that points to my guilt - I guess you never will. You acted like you hated the sight of me. And when you said you wanted things to go back to the way they were before your senses came back online, you think I didn't know you meant you also wanted me to be gone, to just disappear so you wouldn't have to see or hear me again? I I thought I was worth more than that, you know? You've always expected my loyalty. I thought I had yours. But I was wrong."

"So what do you want me to do?" Jim demanded. "How do I fix things now?"

"What's to fix, man? You got what you wanted, and I've got a job and a place to live," Blair said flatly as he went back to packing. Pausing, he looked up. "I screwed up. I know that. My Mom did what she did. You're blameless in the whole thing. You have nothing to feel guilty about, okay? Just don't start bitching now about getting what you basically wanted; what I think you've probably wanted for quite a while. And you were right. It's long past time that I moved on with my life."

"So, you're saying it's all over," Jim challenged, a hint of desperation straining his voice. "That our friendship, everything, is over?"

Straightening, Blair shook his head. "I hope, when things finally settle down, that we can still be friends, at least of a sort," he replied hoarsely. "I guess that's up to you." He looked up, his face wan, his eyes wide and filled with anguish. "Like I said, given a choice, I probably wouldn't have ever left. Pretty sad, huh? To want to stay in this little cubbyhole for the rest of my life? But I loved our life, Jim. You're my best friend. I loved living here, and I really loved working with you."

"Then stay."

"I can't."

"Well," Jim muttered tightly, turning away, "then I guess that's up to you."

"Oh, come on, Jim," he protested, stung. "You know as well as I do that if I stay there would be questions neither one of us wants to answer. You know there would be speculation by other cops and the media about why you'd let me keep hanging around after I told such lies about you and used you to commit fraud. No way would anyone believe you'd put up with that without wondering if maybe there was a whole lot more to the story than either of us were admitting."

"I don't give a shit what other people think, Sandburg," he slammed back.

"God, I wish that were true," Blair snapped. "But it's not, and you damned well know it. You sure as hell cared about people thinking you were some kind of freak. And about how upset your father and brother were. You can't stand there and tell me that you wouldn't care if rumors started up again. If people didn't just let it die."

Jim stared at him hard, as if he was going to protest, but then his gaze fell away and his shoulders sagged. He looked utterly defeated. He ran his hand over his head. "I'm tired," he muttered. "I'm going to bed. We can talk more about this tomorrow."

Blair watched him limp away. Tears blurred his eyes. Exhausted, he sank down on his bed and buried his face in his hands. God, he wanted to stay so badly that he could scarcely breathe for the pain that filled his chest. He wanted Jim to come back and insist that he stay, that they'd find a way to work it out, take him in his arms and .

Shuddering, he scrubbed his face. He couldn't have what he wanted and it was long past time that he accepted that fact. Getting up, his movements stiff and mechanical, he forced himself to finish packing up his life.

**

Aggravated by the throbbing ache in his leg and listening helplessly to the muted sounds of Blair packing, Jim laid awake long into the early morning hours. Everything Blair had said was true - and yet, he'd gotten it all wrong. Yes, Jim knew he'd reacted with fury when he'd found out so abruptly that the secret was out, was public for all the world to know. And, yes, the fury had been driven by fear of being seen as a freak of nature. He'd never been able to get past that, no matter how hard Blair had tried to convince him otherwise and how intellectually stupid he knew his feelings were.

But underlying all that had been the shattering shock of thinking that the one person he relied upon implicitly, the man he trusted more than he'd ever trusted another human being, had done this to him. In those devastating moments after the reporters had swarmed around the truck, all he'd been able to think about was: if not Blair, then who? Who else knew? Sure, Simon knew the truth but even he didn't know all the details about his senses. Far from it. And, after all the years of covering for him, Simon had as much vested interest as he did in keeping the secret under wraps. No, the information had to have come from Blair's paper, which had to mean that Blair had betrayed him, right? What else could he have thought especially when Sandburg finally admitted what happened? By then, the defensive explanation was too little and too late to ease his panic.

His world had crashed around him, leaving him staggering. He'd been sure Blair had betrayed him. But he'd been so wrong. He should have trusted his deeper instincts that Blair would never do that to him, no matter how bad it had looked.

By the time the real facts had sunk in, that it had been an accident, it hadn't seemed to matter. He'd been caught in the clutches of an over-riding, helpless anger. Everything was out of control. He had tried to focus on his job, to give himself a reference point, the structure he needed to keep functioning in the midst of the chaos around him. Looking back, he could see that he'd been locked in a kind of denial, as if ignoring it all would make it go away.

Only, it had grown worse, and the media's rabid attentions had caused him to fail when he should have captured Zeller. Simon and Megan had paid the price for his failure, had very nearly died for it. Because he couldn't face who and what he was, couldn't just couldn't. Didn't know how.

In all the years, with all they'd talked about, he and Blair had never speculated about what would happen, about what they'd do, if somehow the secret got out. Lying there in the dark, reflecting now instead of reacting, Jim could see how criminally stupid his denial had been. For years, they both had known at some level - ever since Brackett had invaded their lives with full knowledge of his abilities and Blair's role in helping him - that the secret wasn't at all secure. Disclosure had always been inevitable. He just hadn't wanted to face it.

He could see now that he and Blair had been complicit in their tacit agreement, for their own disparate reasons, to ignore the threat. Jim had wanted to avoid notoriety. Blair Blair had been driven to write a paper about sentinels for all kinds of reasons and he'd gotten so caught in their illusion of safety that he'd breached the most basic principle of security: he'd named Jim in the draft paper, believing no one else would ever know. But how could people not know? The people at Rainier who would eventually read the paper would figure it out even without his name expressly stated. Who had Blair been spending all his time with for years?

God, they'd both been willfully blind. Sighing wearily, he rubbed his eyes.

Denial.

For more than three years, he'd pretended that it could on forever, just the way it was. He hadn't looked ahead, except to dread in a distant way the eventual production of the dissertation. But Blair had put it off so long that, until he'd submitted that chapter over six months ago, Jim had begun to hope it might never be written.

But right after that, Alex Barnes had come into town and and everything had changed. He'd shut Blair out, pushed him away, packed up everything and told him to get out, and he still didn't understand why. He only knew that everything seemed to be closing in on him and, underlying the nebulous sense of something being very wrong, he felt a persistent and growing fear that Blair was in danger. No, more than that. That terrifying, soul-shriveling vision had convinced him that, if he didn't push Blair away, he'd be responsible for Blair's death.

But Blair had still died. Alex had murdered him. Jim again felt the all-pervasive chill of responsibility that had enveloped him when he looked at the fountain and was horrified to see his friend's body floating face down. She might have done the deed, but it had been his fault. He'd pushed Blair away when he should have kept him close. What the hell had he been thinking? A crazy sentinel was running around loose. A sentinel who knew what Blair was to him, that Blair gave him an edge she didn't have. By rejecting Blair, Jim had set up his best friend to be the sacrificial victim on the altar of two warring sentinels' rabid antipathy.

Wincing, he remembered that he'd mouthed off about trust that time, too, just as he had over the first chapter of the dissertation. Why? Why did he always seem to be accusing Blair of a betrayal of fundamental trust when the kid had never really done anything wrong? To the contrary, from the very beginning, Blair had always, without hesitation, put himself on the line for him.

Was he so arrogant, so territorial, that he resented his mind stalled, and he frowned. Resented? Resented what? That he really wasn't the center of Blair's whole world? That what Rainier offered - what the dissertation represented, and the research work with another sentinel only emphasized - all meant Blair had another life and other dreams; dreams that would steal Blair away one day? Resentful that Blair could regard him so dispassionately as to write what he had in his first chapter - and then continue to write the dissertation, still avidly pursuing his other dream of academia, even after Jim had gone after him and brought him back from the dead?

Was that why he'd remained furiously angry even after he'd known the truth about how the secret got leaked? Dear God, was that why he'd been unable to resist Alex's allure? Had he been punishing Blair, making him pay for not choosing the life they had over some goddamned PhD? Had he wanted to hurt and punish the kid that much? Hadn't dying been enough punishment?

Or had he simply been protecting himself, putting up walls, denying how much Blair had come to mean to him? Because he'd finally and fully realized that terrible morning, when there was no heartbeat and Blair's body was so cold, just exactly what Blair meant to him.

Tears stung Jim's eyes as he remembered with crystal clarity the desperation he'd felt, the sickening, shattering loss and how, when Incacha had given him hope, he'd willfully given all of himself away, used his very soul and shared his spark of life to bring Blair back to him. In the horror of fear and grief and guilt and despair, he'd been sure of only one thing. If Blair hadn't returned, he would have followed. It was that simple. And then, later, when he had Blair back, all he'd been able to think about was losing him, what it had felt like, how utterly lost he'd been, how intrinsically dependent he'd become, and that had scared him badly - so much so that he'd drawn back from the brink of commitment, refusing to acknowledge what was between them.

Denial.

God, what a mess he'd made of everything. For what? To end up like this, listening to Blair packing, unable to get past the walls he'd built around himself? The walls that proclaimed he didn't need anyone? Blair was right. He had expected the kid to fix everything, just as Blair had handled everything that had to do with his senses since the day they'd met. And Jim hadn't cared how Blair did it, so long as he figured something out and made everything right.

With a sinking heart, he understood now what he hadn't realized then. It had been a test to see if Blair would choose him over all his other dreams. He'd made it clear that day, when he'd told Blair to give it up, that it was over, that the kid couldn't have both. And then he'd walked out, leaving Blair to make his choice. He'd made Blair choose because he hadn't been able to make the choice himself. Hadn't had the insight to even realize what he was doing. He hadn't had the strength to face up to the implications of his own senses or to deal with his denial.

He'd gotten what he wanted, though, hadn't he, he thought with bitter self-condemnation. Blair had chosen him; had given up everything else that mattered to him to make things right. Jim cursed himself for having been blind to what he'd demanded and why - and for having completely failed to consider the costs. He'd gotten what he wanted, alright. While he'd been caught up in holding onto his self-righteous anger and accusations of betrayal, Blair had proven once more and for all time that his word was good. After that press conference, Jim could never again have any doubt Blair could be trusted to go the distance, that his integrity and courage were unassailable, and that Jim could always count on him, no matter what, no matter the cost. Blair said he would have chosen to stay forever. But now he had to go, to keep safeguarding the damned secret. Blair had given up his whole life, including his home, for him.

No, Blair hadn't betrayed him. Sure, Blair had made a mistake, but it had been his mother's well-intentioned meddling and betrayal of Blair's privacy that had led to disaster. And, to Jim's chagrin, he realized he had also betrayed Blair. The kid hadn't deserved his lack of faith, his anger and recriminations, and his resentful refusal to work with Blair to find a solution they might both have been able to live with.

So, yeah, Jim had gotten what he wanted and, in doing so, had lost everything that mattered: the best friend and partner he'd ever had, the man who'd made his hollow sanctuary a home; the one person who understood him and his weird senses, and who valued him unconditionally. The human being he loved more than he'd ever thought it possible to love loved so damned much that, without Blair, life would be barren, without meaning or joy. He would still have his work, sure, and that gave his life purpose and worth, but he'd be empty inside.

God, when he'd watched that press conference and realized what he'd done, what Blair was doing for him, he'd felt sick, and he'd hated himself as he never had before. As he despised himself now, for lying there, listening to the packing, still too damned afraid to admit to what he felt, what he wanted, and what he needed as much as he needed air to breathe.

He had to choose.

Had to decide whether to give up and let go of the best gift life had ever given him, or face up to what he was and risk the vulnerability and reactions he couldn't control.

He'd run out of time.

He couldn't keep pretending and denying unless he wanted to live the rest of his life miserable and alone.

The stark, agonizing choices challenged him to his core, tugged him back and forth. He felt torn, unable to decide, because either way the cost was so high. As things stood, he still had his work and there were no guarantees if he confessed his love to Blair, that Blair would stay. He'd have to go farther and admit the truth about his senses to restore the balance and, even then, Blair might leave him. What would he have left then?

And then, frowning heavily, he wondered what Blair had left, now that he'd given up his work, his good name and, all too evidently, his home. What was Blair's internal compass? What would bring him joy? What kept him going now that he had nothing left of his own dreams?

Blair had put everything on the line for him.

Why couldn't he bring himself to do the same for Blair?

Turbulent guilt and fear gripped Jim in equal measure. Nausea roiled in his gut and he had to swallow hard against the bile that burned the back of his throat. His face creased with pain and he moaned at the sharp, insistent ache in his leg - and the deeper anguish in his chest. Biting his lip, he struggled to bring his dials into line, but he was too distracted, too emotionally overwrought.

Desperate to do something, anything, to alleviate his turmoil, he thought about getting up and going down there and emptying every damned box and bag and yelling that Blair wasn't going anywhere, that he was already where he belonged and where he was meant to stay. But he knew he was in no condition to make any sense. He'd make a mess of it, probably only escalate the argument they'd been on the edge of having, a fight that might only drive Blair farther away.

Right now, more than anything, he needed to sleep, so that in the morning he'd have a hope of making some sense of everything and of being persuasive enough to keep Blair from going. And then he'd work on finding the courage for the raw honesty he'd need to tell Blair why he couldn't ever leave, at least not without taking Jim's soul with him. To hell with what people might think about Blair continuing to live in the apartment. With a soft curse, he grabbed the small vial of pills from the bedside table, dry swallowed two of them, and sagged back on the bed.

Below him, the sounds of packing finally stopped. A minute later, the downstairs lights went off, and silence shrouded the loft. Closing his eyes, he told himself that they'd talk in the morning and finally clear the air. Figure out what to do. What it would take for Blair to stay. And whether he'd have to go all the way and announce to the world that he really was a sentinel after all. God, he felt so trapped and helpless. Tears clogged his throat. He felt like he was standing on the edge of a cliff that was crumbling beneath his feet - and he knew he couldn't perch on the edge of indecision forever. The choices and risks whirled in his mind; a chaotic maelstrom that made less and less sense until sleep finally captured him and carried him over the abyss into the darkness.

**

Late the next morning, Jim woke up groggy from the pain medication. Wincing, he squinted against the blinding sunlight streaming in through the windows. His leg was killing him, the pain all out of proportion to his injury, and he knew his senses had to be way offline. Swallowing against the dryness of his mouth, he forced himself to breathe deeply as he pictured the recalcitrant dials and, through force of will, got them down to bearable levels. Heaving a sigh, he simply lay there for a moment, his arm covering his face, and listened to the silence of the loft.

Silence?

He jerked up, and cursed the fresh stab of pain that shot up his leg into his belly, leaving him dizzy and nauseated. "Damn it," he snarled, and then shouted with wretched anguish, "Sandburg!"

But there was no answer.

Refusing to accept the evidence of his senses, he pushed himself up onto his feet and hobbled to the staircase. Drowning in dread, wishing he could race down the steps, he could only limp down one slow tread at a time while leaning heavily against the wall for support. He hurried to the door of Blair's room as quickly as he could, his heart pounding in his chest, his breath tight and rasping.

He couldn't have slept through Blair moving all that stuff, his bags and boxes, his computer, his files. Couldn't have been so deeply under but when he got to the doorway, he saw only the stripped bed and the empty room. "Ah, no," he gasped and turned away, unable to bear the sight of the barren shell.

Dazedly, he limped into the kitchen, and saw the key by the toaster. Just the key, no note. Only then did he realize with stricken alarm that critical information had gotten lost in the tangled threads of their conversation the night before. He'd never found out where Blair was going. Didn't know what job he'd taken. Had Blair deliberately kept that information from him? Did the absence of a note mean that Blair didn't want him to know?

Shaking, he dragged his bad leg to the table and sat down, propped his elbows on the edge and covered his face with his hands. Was this Blair's way of ensuring that he kept his distance, so that nobody would know they were still friends?

Were they still friends?

Yes, yes, of course they were. Blair had said so last night and Blair wouldn't lie about that. Grimacing at the thought, the unconscious, defensive qualifier, he sternly reminded himself that Blair didn't lie to him, period. He might evade, obscure and obfuscate if he thought he had to, but he wouldn't directly lie.

And Blair sure in hell wasn't the only one who played the evasion game. The brutal truth was that, of the two of them, Jim was the master of avoidance when it came to skirting around what he didn't want to deal with, and he knew it.

Leaning back against the chair, he stared sightlessly out the window. He should have said more the night before. Shouldn't have hesitated and put it off. But he really had intended to continue the discussion after they'd both gotten some rest and their emotions weren't so frayed by exhaustion. So he'd said too little; and now, maybe it was too late.

No, no, it couldn't be too late. Blair had said he'd be around in case he was needed. He hadn't left town, after all. Hadn't even wanted to leave, except he'd felt he had to go.

Jim rose and went to the phone, grabbed the receiver and then hesitated. What did he want to say? Growling at himself, at his infernal reticence and stupid fear of vulnerability, he punched in the familiar number.

Waiting for the phone to ring, still unsure about what he wanted to say, he told himself that it wasn't like Blair hadn't seen him vulnerable and inarticulate before, too many times to count. And, besides, right now, he just needed to know where Blair was - the talking would come later.

"Yeah?" Blair answered, his voice wary and tired.

"It's me. I just woke up. I, uh, I didn't hear you leave."

"Probably the meds," he replied, sounding distant and preoccupied. "They always really knock you out."

Jim shook his head and rubbed his eyes at the reticence he could hear in his friend's voice, but he pressed on. "Where are you?"

There was a hesitation, and then, "On Shaunnessey, between Logan and Marsden. My apartment's above the new Community Center."

Frowning, Jim thought about that. "Where Cramer's Gym used to be?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"That's not the best neighborhood, Chief."

"Well, it's handy for work."

"You didn't tell me what job you got."

"I'm the new director for the Center."

"Oh."

"Look, Jim, sorry, but I've got a lot to do today. Are you okay? Did you need something?"

Grimacing, he shook his head. "No, no, I'm fine. I just I just thought we'd talk before you left."

"About what?"

"Not over the phone."

He heard Blair sigh. "Well, man, you know where to find me. See ya around."

And the line went dead. You know where to find me. The words sent a chill up Jim's spine and he shivered with the memory of the last time Blair had said that to him. And then he felt a surge of guilt because those words no longer meant Blair's office at Rainier, a place that had been a kind of second home for his friend for almost half his life.

Forcing himself to calm down, but unable to completely still the trembling of his hands, he hung up the phone and made coffee. Though he felt queasy and could barely tolerate the thought of food, he knew he had to eat something. So he made himself some toast. Taking the hot coffee and the meager meal to the table, he sat and stared out the balcony windows.

Jim knew what he needed to do. It was the doing of it that was the problem. He thought that it would probably have been easier to keep Blair from leaving than it would be to get him to come back; especially now that the kid had actively assumed other responsibilities.

"You really missed the boat on this one, Ace," he muttered aggrievedly.

Looking around the apartment, listening to the silence, letting it soak into him, he forced himself to confront his choices. Was he going to hold on tight to what he had? His job and the security of knowing his secret was still safe and might stay safe for a long time yet? Or was he willing to put all that on the line to get Blair back? And, in doing so, maybe risk losing everything if Blair if Blair rejected him. What was it going to be?

Grimly, he tried to imagine life without Blair. The ferocity of his reaction to that thought left him shaking and fighting back the sudden, deep sob that built in his chest.

Oh, Jesus, he couldn't do it. Couldn't, just couldn't bear the bitter loneliness that clawed at him. His fists clenched as he fought for control and he panted for breath. The job wasn't enough, could never be enough, not when he wanted and needed so much more, when he'd learned what it was like to share his life with someone he loved so deeply. Even if Blair didn't love him the same way, if all they could ever be was friends, he needed Blair in his life.

Sitting with his head bowed and his eyes pressed shut, his arms crossed tightly over his chest, he dragged in deep, sobbing breaths. Gradually, the thunderous emotions subsided and the tension in his body eased. Once again his gaze raked the loft and he thought how easy the choice had been. After all his agonizing hesitation, his paralyzing fears, it was really very simple.

He wasn't whole without Blair. And if he wasn't whole, nothing else mattered because he could never do his best, never be more than half a man, a shell that went through the motions of living but was dead inside.

Whatever the risks, they paled in the face of the reality of what he stood to lose if he couldn't get Blair back. He had to try and he had to give his all to the effort.

But after everything that had happened over the past weeks and months, would Blair believe him? Last night, the man had said that Jim had hurt him worse than he'd ever been hurt before. And the wariness in his friend's voice on the phone that morning spoke volumes about Blair's loss of trust in him. God, if he just marched in and declared his love and that he'd do whatever it took to get Blair to come home, why would Blair believe him? He sure hadn't believed him last night when he'd said he didn't care what anyone thought - and why would he? Blair was right. Jim had cared about what everyone else had thought; everyone but the man who mattered most.

Just then, an odd memory surfaced, and the sing-song voice of the strange homeless man sounded as if the self-proclaimed angel was in the room with him. 'What good does is if for a man to have ears that can hear a thousand miles, if he cannot hear the whispers of his own heart. You should start by listening to the hearts of others .'

Startled, Jim looked around the room and rubbed his ears but it could only have been a memory. He frowned as he reflected that he should have paid more attention to that sage advice, rather than so quickly discount the source. He hadn't listened to his own heart, only his fears, but his heart was telling him now that, more than anything, he needed Blair back in his life. And he sure hadn't listened to Blair's heart, or he'd never have doubted his friend or put Blair in the position of having to choose between his career and Jim. If only he'd listened to Blair's heart .

Rubbing his jaw, Jim bitterly regretted the mistakes he'd made and cursed himself for a fool. And most of all, he grieved for the pain he'd caused the one person he should only have cherished and held close. What a coward he'd been to have stood back and let Blair sacrifice so much and to have offered so little in return. He hadn't deserved the gifts Blair had given him so freely and he felt humbled, unequal to the sacrifices Blair had made on his behalf. This wasn't something he could fix with a statement of intent and devotion, however sincere. He was going to have earn back the trust that he'd destroyed. But how?

Kneading the back of his neck, he decided that he could, and maybe even should, approach the whole situation in stages. The first and most critical thing he had to do was ensure that Blair was safe where he was. After that, he needed to lay it on the line. All of it. Had to admit the mistakes he'd made and explain why, however ugly his unconscious motivations had been, and hope that Blair would understand and forgive him. Only then would he have the right to ask Blair to come back.

Frowning, he gnawed on his lip. Something about all that didn't sit well, didn't feel right.

No, he was wrong. It wasn't about 'rights' it was about love. Regardless of whether he had the right to hope or not, he had to let Blair know that he was wanted and needed. The first thing he had to do was make it absolutely clear that he hoped, above all else, Blair would come home. That said where he stood and the rest flowed from there, from his need to safeguard Blair's security so long as he was living at the Center, to his motivations for wanting Blair to return. Yeah yeah, that's where he had to start.

Galvanized by his decision, he finished breaking his fast and, gritting his teeth, climbed back up the steps to his bedroom to dress. He debated taking more pain medication, but didn't want to deal with the side effects that blunted his thinking, so he contented himself with turning his pain dial way down. Within half an hour, he'd called a taxi, pocketed the key that Blair had left behind, and was on his way to Shaunnessey Street.

When he got there and was paying off the cabbie, he looked up and down the block and reflected that he'd been right. It wasn't the safest neighborhood in Cascade. Far from it. Across the road from the new Center, youths wearing the red bandannas of their 'colors' loitered in a sizeable group, with glowering expressions and hostile body language. His lips thinning, he turned to look at the Center and watched a number of kids and several adults having a blast painting the exterior. Yep, looked like war was being declared. The neighborhood wanted to reclaim their turf from the Flames, but the Flames had been happy with the way things were - they clearly didn't want any contender for the loyalty of the local kids.

And Blair was in the middle of it. Great. Just great.

Nodding at the painters and leaning heavily on his cane, he limped inside and found an even larger group busy making the place their own. Some were painting and there was a cleaning crew working on the floors, all volunteers. The powerful fumes from the paint and the cleaning solutions left him gasping and he hastily turned down his sense of smell. Moving carefully through the jostling crowd of good-humored kids and parents - mostly moms - he made his way further inside, looking for his friend. He passed the lounge and noted the sturdy furniture that wouldn't collapse if kids used it roughly, the tables for games, and then he entered the gym. The place was old and had certainly seen better days, but the basketball court was a long sight better than a hoop screwed to the side of a building beside an empty lot on the street.

There he found Blair, a fact that both helped him relax and raised a flare of anxiety in his gut. The kid was practically surrounded by beanpoles from five to ten inches taller than he was, and it took Jim a second to realize that Orvelle Wallace was one of them. Surprised, he dialed up his hearing and squinted as he filtered out the chaos of other noise and voices around him to listen in.

"Okay, we'll have practice every evening after school, mostly with Blair coaching," Orvelle was saying, "and every Saturday morning. I'll be over here as much as I can to help out, but with out of town games, well, I can't always be around, that's for sure." He laid an affectionate hand on Blair's shoulder as he went on, "This guy might look pint-size, but he's about the toughest man I know - and trust me, he knows all the moves and is the best coach you guys could have. So you pay attention to him, y'hear? Blair calls the shots. Give him any grief and he'll bounce you off the team. That's it. We clear?"

The boys all nodded enthusiastically and grinned. One sang out, "S'okay. We'll be gentle with the munchkin."

Blair snorted, but he grinned good-naturedly and, for the first time in a very long time, Jim saw a vestige of the old sparkle. But the rest of his face was wan with weariness, and there were dark smudges under his eyes. A wave of tenderness assailed Jim, surprising him with how passionately he both regretted his role in having created the weight of exhaustion Blair bore and how very much he wanted to gather the man in close to nurture and protect him.

Wryly, he snorted in bemusement at his desire to be strong for Blair. The man was no frail flower that was for damned sure, and wouldn't appreciate any suggestion that he couldn't look after himself. Jim's throat tightened at the thrill of pride he felt for Blair's unquestionable strength and courage. Still, that didn't mean that Blair had to do it all on his own. And he sure in hell needed to know that he wasn't alone. Watching him, Jim hoped Blair would accept the support he wanted, needed, to give.

When the group broke up to run lay-ups under Orvelle's instruction, Jim caught Blair's attention. The sparkle immediately died and a wariness entered Blair's eyes, reminding Jim sharply of the rift between them. That hurt, but Jim could more than understand it. The shadows in those wide eyes made him think of an embattled stag that was cornered, uncertain of whether to go on fighting or to bolt, and Jim didn't want to do anything to cause Blair to retreat even further from him. Though the butterflies in his gut multiplied, he held Blair's gaze and did his best to project reassurance, with the hope that Blair would understand that there was nothing to fear from him. Pasting a weak smile on his face as Blair approached, telling himself to go easy and take it slow, he gestured around the place, and said, "Quite a going concern you got here, Chief."

With a small smile Blair nodded. "Yeah, I'd hardly parked early this morning when my car was surrounded by people wanting to help me move in and start working on the place. Their enthusiasm is really something."

Jerking his head toward the street, he replied, "Uh, I saw some of the 'neighbors' aren't all as welcoming."

Blair's expression clouded and he grimaced, his gaze darting away. "I know. I saw them out there, too. Hopefully, the worst they'll do is stare daggers at us."

Jim's lip twisted. "I don't know, Sandburg. Could get dicey."

Blair's gaze lifted to confront him with a flash of belligerence, making it clear that he didn't appreciate the implicit concern or suggestion that he couldn't handle things on his own. "Did you come down here to check the place out?" he demanded.

"Partly," he admitted evenly, determined not to get defensive about caring. "I wanted to be sure you were safe."

Huffing a short, bitter laugh, Blair pushed his hair back behind his ears. "I'm not your responsibility, Jim."

"Maybe not. But you're my friend."

Blair's eyes widened and the hostility in them melted away. The rigidity of his posture eased and a tentative smile flitted over his lips. "Yeah," he agreed softly. The smile firmed up, quirking the corner of his mouth. "Thanks for coming to see the place."

They stood in awkward silence for a moment, and then Blair said, "When you called, you said there were things you wanted to talk about."

"Uh huh," Jim nodded, looking around. "Is there some place where we could do that? Your apartment, maybe?"

With a glance at the cane, Blair replied, "I don't think trying to get up and down the stairs to my apartment would be a good idea. They're pretty steep." Waving back the way Jim had come, he went on, "I've got a small office by the entrance. We can go there."

"The office it is," Jim returned. When Blair started off, he limped behind and said, "So Orvelle is involved with this Center?"

"Yeah. Actually, he owns it," Blair told him. "He called me yesterday to ask if I'd take it on for him. The salary is a pretty good deal, especially with the free, furnished apartment thrown in. He wants me to be around twenty-four-seven to help the kids."

As they made their way along the hall, Blair gestured back toward the gym. "The job's more than just being a coach and activity director. He's asked me to do some tutoring and be a safe person for the kids to come to if they're in trouble." Skirting around a cluster of pre-teens enthusiastically scrubbing the floor, he grinned at them and told them what a great job they were doing before adding, "And, you know, be an example for the ones having a tough time that a guy can screw up really badly, but still clean up his act, have a good life, and make a contribution."

Jim frowned and growled, "He offered you this because he thinks you screwed up?"

"No, Jim," Blair replied, turning to look back at him. "He offered me the job because he was worried about me." Lowering his voice, he added, "Orvelle said he didn't believe the press conference. He said he's seen you in action enough to know there was a lot more to the story." Biting his lip, he hesitated and then said earnestly, "I didn't confirm anything. But I didn't deny it, either."

"Fair enough," Jim murmured. Glancing at entrance to the gym, he added, "I'm glad someone knows better than to believe whatever they see on television."

Blair's expression tightened and he turned abruptly to continue leading Jim to the office. Once they were there - a little cubbyhole crowded by an old desk, two wooden chairs and file cabinets - and Jim was sitting down, he closed the door and leaned against it, his arms crossed. "We want people to believe that press conference, Jim. That was the whole point."

Grudgingly, Jim nodded.

When he didn't say anything, Blair's gaze narrowed and he waved his arms in exasperation as he went on, "Don't go guilt-tripping on me, okay? You can't afford to have the bad guys figure out that you might have some vulnerabilities. I told you I'm okay with what I did. I'd do it again, no question. So don't, don't get all weird about it."

"Weird?" he countered, careful to keep his voice even. "It's weird to feel badly that protecting me has cost you far more than any person should ever have to pay for another human being? Chief, God knows I appreciate what you did. I'm still blown away by it. But, but it was too much. It cost you too much."

As if reassured by the reasonableness of his tone, Blair's taut posture relaxed. Briefly, he gripped Jim's shoulder before moving to perch on the edge of the desk. "We'll get past it, man," he said gently. "And I told you last night, I had stopped really caring about getting the PhD, anyway. I I probably should have just quit. Was doing it more out of habit, and out of a desire to maybe get something published that might help other people like you, than because I wanted a professorship. Those faculty meetings, man - talk about deadly dull, and the political posturing? Pretty disgusting." Pushing his hair back behind his ears, his smile was genuine as he added warmly, "My studies got me what I wanted. I got to meet a real sentinel. More than that, Jim, so much more, I got to help you and I got the chance to be your friend. Honestly, man, don't get all bent out of shape about what you think I gave up."

Heaving a shuddering breath, Jim leaned an elbow on the desk. Studying Blair, he said soberly, "After last night, I wasn't sure you still wanted my friendship. I hope I was wrong, Chief."

"So wrong, man!" he exclaimed, as if genuinely surprised that Jim could be worried about such an impossibility. "You're the best friend I've ever had; the most important person in my life. I hope we'll always be friends. I, uh, I kinda count on that."

Close to choking up with relief, for a moment Jim could only nod and smile. Clearing his throat, he asked tentatively, "Then you'll come back home?"

Blair blinked and seemed to sag. "Ah, man, I can't. I promised Orvelle at least six months, to get this place up and running. And, like I said, he wants me here so the kids can come day or night; so that it's a kind of refuge for them, you know? Besides, the reason I had to move out still stands. We need to give it time to blow over. And, and, Jim? I I think you need that time, to decide whether, maybe, you like having your own place and your privacy back."

Jim looked into those wide, clear eyes and that beautiful face, so worn with the trauma of the past weeks, and his throat grew thick again. His gaze dropped away, and he rubbed his mouth as he told himself he had a lot to make up for, a lot to make right.

Biting his lip, he looked around the dingy office and then said emphatically, "Blair, I can tell you right now, I want you back home and that's not ever going to change. I wish I wish I'd realized you'd think it was necessary to leave before you got a chance to make this commitment to Orvelle. But, but I know you. Despite the way I behaved, I know once you give your word, you keep it. So I understand that you can't come back right now." Leaning forward, his tone tightened with determination as he continued, "But in six months, all bets are off. I don't give a damn, I really don't, what other people think. I want you back home."

When Blair mutely cocked a disbelieving brow, Jim grimaced and shook his head. "I know, I know - you don't believe that. Why should you when I acted like such an ass? But I was wrong, Chief. Dead wrong. If people ask questions, we'll deal with it - or at least we'll figure out together how to handle it, and then we'll do whatever we have to do. But you've carried the whole load so far and it's time I shouldered my part of it. The, the point here is - having you come back home is more important to me than what anyone else says or thinks."

He hesitated and cut Blair a quick look. The guarded expression on his friend's face signaled that Blair was far from convinced. God, he had to make Blair believe he meant what he said, but he didn't know how else to say it or what proof he could offer. Feeling increasingly desperate, he said, "I know it's a stretch, asking you to believe me when I say that I've got my priorities sorted out and you come out on top. But I mean it, Chief." When Blair still didn't say anything, he faltered and his gaze fell away. Feeling helpless, Jim looked around uncertainly. "That's that's if you're willing to come back. Once you've had a taste of freedom and don't have to live with a bunch of rules, maybe you won't want to move back in with me."

"Jim, why do you want me to move back in, when it's so much easier if I stay away?" Blair asked, his voice low, taut.

"It's not easier!" he exclaimed in frustration, but when he met Blair's somber gaze, his chest ached with fear. God, he had to get this right, had to find the right words. "There're so many reasons why it's not easier," he said, a tremor in his voice. He cleared his throat and took a breath to steady himself. "But, most of all, I want you to come home because you're my best friend. My, my life is richer with you there and, and and I'm a better man, a better person, when you're around. I'm I'm just not happy when you're not there, okay?" Blinking against the burn in his eyes, his gaze fell away and he drew a shaky breath. "It's not home without you, Chief. It's just empty."

He darted another look at Blair and sagged with the relief of seeing a softening in his friend's eyes. "I want you to come home," he said again with simple sincerity. "Nothing else matters to me more than that."

Blair's gaze dropped away. He rubbed his mouth and sniffed, and then nodded slowly. A fragile smile quirked his lips and, when he looked up, the hope in his eyes took Jim's breath away. "I'm really glad you want me back," he said as if he still didn't quite believe it but very much wanted to. Blair took a deep breath and let it out gradually. "Okay, Jim," he agreed, his voice growing stronger, "Unless things change in a way neither of us can foresee right now, I think you can count on me moving back six months from now." Then his grin widened and the sparkle Jim had come to crave lit his eyes as Blair chuckled with wry bemusement. "Can't believe I'm admitting this, man, but the rules weren't so bad."

"Good," Jim gusted in relief. "Good." He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the key. "You forgot to take this with you this morning," he said diffidently as he laid it on the desk and pushed it toward Blair.

Blair looked at it for a long moment before picking it up and putting it in his pocket. "Thanks, Jim."

Once again, Jim's gaze drifted around the office and then to the door. He could hear all the light-hearted voices, all the work going on. "There's, uh, there's a lot more stuff I want to talk about, Chief. But I can see this isn't the time. Once you're a bit more settled, I can come back. Maybe we could order in dinner or something."

"I'd like that," Blair replied, and then frowned with concern. "But be careful, Jim. We really don't want a lot of people knowing you're still hanging around with me, okay? No reason to invite trouble, right? In six months, well, maybe by then things'll've cooled off and we can relax a little."

Anger flared then, helpless, futile anger. He didn't want to rage at Blair for something that wasn't his fault, but he couldn't hold it all back. Facing Blair, he said firmly, "Let's get this one thing straight, okay? I'll see you and spend as much time with you, as often as I like. And that'll be so often you'll probably get sick of the sight of me. I will not have you skulking around like some kind of criminal and I refuse to behave as if I'm ashamed I know you. Not when when I'm so damned proud and grateful to have a friend like you. A better friend than any man, let alone me, ever deserves. You got that?"

Blair's eyes glazed and he blinked rapidly to clear them. Swallowing hard, he rasped, "I got it. Thanks, man. That, uh, that means a whole lot, you know?"

Uncomfortable with Blair's gratitude for what was no more than his due, Jim nodded stiffly. Standing, he reached for the doorknob as he said, "Okay, I've got a few errands to run. I'll be back a little later to see how things are going."

"Jim, you're supposed to be staying off that leg," Blair cautioned, his tone stern.

"Yeah, well, I don't have anything all that strenuous planned." Opening the door, he said over his shoulder, "I'll be back in an hour or two. In the meantime, keep an eye on the Flames. Make sure they don't torch the place when nobody's looking."

Rising to walk him out, Blair laid a reassuring hand on his back. "I'll be careful."

**

Just over two hours later, Jim was back, and he called some of the kids who were nearly done painting the exterior of the Center over, to help him unload the taxi. As they eagerly carried bags and boxes inside, he cast a dark look at the gang members who were still loitering threateningly on the other side of the street. Slowly and deliberately, he pulled his badge from his pocket and held it up, so they could all see it. And then he jerked his thumb in a 'move along' gesture. They grimaced, but began to amble away - though probably not far enough. Slipping the badge back into his jacket, he thought that the deterrence of having a cop actively interested in the place wasn't a whole lot of protection, but it was a start.

Inside, Blair and Orvelle had come to the entrance to investigate the excited yells that, "The cop brought presents!"

"What's going on?" Blair demanded in surprise when he saw the stack of boxes.

Jim thanked the kids who'd helped him, and replied, "Well, I noticed there weren't any security cameras outside and I didn't see any smoke alarms around the place. Gotta be sure you're up to code, Chief." Smiling at Orvelle, he added, "And I wanted to contribute something, to help get this place started."

"Oh, wow," Blair exclaimed as he began opening boxes and bags. Looking up at his friend, he grinned. "This is great, Jim. Thanks."

"Consider yourself the first benefactor of this Center, Jim," Orvelle said, as he shook Jim's hand. Slapping Jim's shoulder, he went on with obvious pleasure, "Sure appreciate your contribution an' I hope we'll be seeing a lot of you around the place."

"Oh, you can count on that," Jim assured him. "And I suspect there will be quite a few other cops taking an interest in volunteering here, too."

"They'll be very welcome," Orvelle said, sobering. He glanced through the open door to the street, and sighed. "I know there's a possibility of trouble. But, as you can see, there are a lot of good people in this neighborhood. The kids here deserve more options than joining a gang."

"I agree. You've done a great thing, here, Orvelle. Setting this place up." Glancing at Blair, Jim added, "And you've got the perfect guy to get it up and running."

Nodding, Orvelle replied with a hearty laugh, "You're right about that. I was sure happy when Blair agreed to take this on."

"Hey, guys, I'm standing right here, and you're both gonna make me blush," Blair cut in dryly. Lifting a smoke alarm in one hand and a camera in the other, he said, "Let's get all this stuff installed before it gets dark."

Jim couldn't do any of the legwork, but he kept himself busy hooking the security system to a remote device that would be picked up by Blair's laptop, so he could access the camera footage from upstairs as well as from the monitors that would go in the little cubbyhole. At some point, Orvelle ordered pizza and soda for the entire crowd that had been working diligently to get the Center ready for operations. When the food was carried in by several members of the Jags, the kids erupted in exuberant cheers and their parents beamed with gratitude and no little excited awe of their own. After they'd all eaten and the lounge was cleaned up, the kids were thrilled when the team members hung around to play some basketball with them for the last hour of the evening.

"All in all," Orvelle observed with fulsome satisfaction as the long day drew to an end, "you've gotten us off to a great start Munchkin."

Jim barked a laugh, and Blair rolled his eyes. "Oh, man, not another nickname," he whined. "Munchkin?"

"When it fits, Chief," Jim teased.

Chuckling delightedly, Orvelle shooed the last of the kids out the door and waved good-night as he left.

The sudden quiet after all the excited chatter and activity was almost shocking, but Jim was grateful for the respite. What with having to keep his senses of smell and hearing dialed down and the persistent aching of his leg, let alone the emotional upheavals, he had found the day exhausting. And, studying Blair, he noted that his friend looked like the big coach had taken Blair's energy with him when he left. Not surprising, Jim thought, reflecting that Blair had gotten little or no sleep the night before and had been going steady all day, getting to know the kids and their parents, encouraging their help and generally trying to be everywhere at once. Sandburg really needed to hit the sack, and the sooner, the better.

Stifling a yawn, Blair offered wearily, "C'mon, I'll drive you home."

"Nah, just call me a cab," Jim returned. "You're dead on your feet."

Obviously too tired to protest, Blair pulled out his cell. "Thanks," he sighed.

As they waited in the doorway, Jim looked down at his friend. "You're doing important work here, Chief. Just, uh, be careful. The Flames play a mean game of hardball."

"I hear you, man," Blair agreed soberly as he leaned against the lintel. "But Orvelle's right. There're good people here. These kids deserve a safe place to play."

When the cab pulled up, he looped an arm around Blair's shoulders. "There's a lot more I want to talk about, Blair. You you showed some anger last night." When Sandburg began to interrupt, Jim shook his head. "I just want to say that you have a right to that anger. I've, uh, made some big mistakes and I owe you more than a few apologies. I plan to make them. We're gonna work everything out, Chief. I promise you that. We're gonna clear all the air between us."

Blair searched his eyes and then nodded. "That'd be good, man. Feel free to come back anytime. Mi casa es su casa."

Jim tightened his half-hug, and then gave in to the impulse to bend quickly to kiss Blair's brow. Swiftly, before Blair could react, he turned away and got into the cab.

**

The taxi had scarcely disappeared around the corner when members of the Flames appeared out of the shadows and angled toward him. Blair hastily stepped back inside, securely locked the door and punched in the security code on the panel Jim had installed on the wall. Too tense to move, he swallowed against the sudden dryness of his mouth and waited to see if the gang members were bent on causing trouble. But when two slow minutes passed, he began to relax and was turning away only to jump at the loud crash of fists and boots hammering upon the door. Scared, he shouted, "Go away or I'll call the cops."

He heard mocking jeers. In the echoing silence of the empty building, he also heard the tinny sound of their voices from the security monitor in the nearby tiny office and he shivered at the eerie feeling of being alone and surrounded by danger. Staring at the door, he fervently hoped it was strong enough to withstand the assault. Taking a shuddering breath, he turned toward the office, intending to call the police.

"This is our turf," someone yelled. "You're trespassing!" Another shouted darkly, "An' 'round here, we shoot trespassers." "Go back where ya came from, white boy," a third voice chimed in.

"I'm calling the police!" he yelled back, hoping the threat would be enough to make them take off.

When his shout was met by more solid blows to the sturdy oaken door, he reached for the phone. But, before he finished punching in the number, he could see on the security monitor that they were moving off, laughing raucously. Hanging up the phone, Blair leaned his hands on the desk and blew a long breath. Closing his eyes, he shook his head and thought about how glad he was that Orvelle had arranged garage space for him behind the pawnshop next door. If he'd had to park his car out front or in the side alley, he had no doubt it would have been trashed by morning.

Once he was sure they were gone, he went through the building, turning off all but the light in the entry hall, before trudging up the steep steps to his new home. "Temporary home," he reminded himself, warmed all over again by the memory of Jim's words that day. He went straight to his bed, kicked off his shoes and pulled off his clothing, leaving it in a pile on the floor. Stiff with weariness but feeling at peace for the first time in nearly two weeks, he crawled into the bed.

Staring into the darkness, he thought again about everything Jim had said and done that day. Jim had certainly surprised him with his candor - hell, with having shown such rare emotional vulnerability. He believed his friend meant what he said but was less sure, if things got rough again, that Jim would be as able to deal with exposure as he claimed. Jim's fears about being perceived as a freak of nature were deep-seated. There was a chance that things would fall apart again, and Blair wasn't at all sure how he'd handle another betrayal by Jim.

Maybe he was an idiot for agreeing to go back and an even greater fool for being so willing to trust to Jim's good intentions. Being so close to Jim, loving him so deeply and yet not being able to express his feelings, knowing Jim would never feel the same way about him, was a bittersweet existence at best. If he were sane and sensible, he'd make the break and work at rebuilding his own life.

But he couldn't deny the joy he felt at knowing how much Jim wanted him to move back, or the rich happiness Jim's words had given him that afternoon when Jim had done his best to explain why he wanted Blair to return home. Yeah, sure, it was probably crazy to hope that everything would work out fine, that there'd be no future anguish or that Jim wouldn't turn on him again - but Blair knew he didn't really have a choice. Leaving at dawn's first light that morning, believing he'd never live in the loft again, had been more painful than standing in front of the cameras at the press conference. He'd felt as if he'd left his heart behind and that he'd never be whole. So, come what may, regardless of the risks, he'd go back, like a moth to the flame, eager and deliriously happy to bathe once again in the light.

And maybe he wasn't being blind or stupid. Maybe Jim really had come to grips with his fears and made a decision he could live with. Certainly, Jim had done all he could that day to show affiliation and support, from bringing in the security equipment to make Blair safer in his new job and apartment, to simply being present without caring who saw him associating with the man who had ostensibly used him and betrayed him. Jim was trying, really trying, to convey his concern and his support. And he was doing a pretty fine job of it, too.

Frowning, Blair thought about those public perceptions and wondered if there was some way of fixing their situation, of reframing his notorious image as a liar and fraud. If he could do that, then he could even go back to working at the PD. God, he really wanted to be Jim's partner at work. He wasn't as sure about becoming a cop, but if they could sort out the major problems, surely there was a way of him getting a consultant position rather than having to go through all the hoops to win a detective's slot. After four years on the job, he really didn't want to have to endure the whole rookie thing.

And while Jim seemed to be indicating that he didn't care about exposure enough to distance himself, Blair was far less sanguine about his friend's secret becoming public knowledge. Oh, not from the perspective of Jim being perceived as a freak, but for purely safety reasons, he did not want Jim's sensory vulnerabilities revealed. Gnawing on his lip, he thought about various possible ways of fixing the situation, but none of them was simple or something that he could manage on his own.

Yawning, he let the problem go. He was just too exhausted to think straight. Rolling onto his side, he told himself he'd just have to keep his mind open to possibilities and trust the Universe to send an opportunity to address his current lack of personal credibility. Maybe once he'd gotten some sleep and wasn't so damned tired, something would occur to him.

His fingers stole up to delicately touch skin still warmed by Jim's tender, utterly surprising kiss. Smiling wistfully, he let sleep claim him.

**

When Jim got back to the loft, he dragged the afghan off the sofa and limped into Blair's room. Lying stiffly down on the bed, he drew the knitted blanket over him and bunched Blair's pillow under his head. It was far from ideal, and he'd much prefer Blair's living presence in the loft, but he was comforted by the fact that it was only a matter of time before his friend would be moving back in.

Grimacing at the sharp ache in his leg, he wrestled with his control over the pain and thought briefly about the small vial of medication that he'd left on the table by his bed. But he didn't want the artificial numbing that muted all his senses and pulled him down into too heavy sleep, nor did he want to face those stairs. He was worried about the Flames and what they might do, and didn't much like the idea of Blair being alone in the Center. Not that the kid wasn't resourceful and couldn't handle himself but that gang was dangerous and had a history of violence. If something went down and he had to respond in the middle of the night, he didn't want to be slowed by chemicals in his body or steps he had trouble navigating.

Six months, he thought then, shaking his head. Six months could be a long time under siege and he was going to miss Blair's presence in the loft and in his life at the PD more than he wanted to contemplate. Damn, there had to be a way to fix things so that Blair could once again partner with him on the job - assuming Blair would want to. There was no guarantee of that and, maybe, in fairness, it was time that he gave his friend the space to do something else with his life. Even if he didn't continue living at the Center, he might well want to remain its Director. But but Jim really didn't want another partner and wasn't at all sure that anyone else could give him the backup that Blair could. Staring up at the ceiling, he wished he could find the answers he needed written there.

One step at a time.

He was farther ahead than he'd been that morning. At least he'd gotten Blair's agreement to come back home. Sighing, he scrubbed his face and wished he was more adept at expressing his deepest feelings, but those words had never come easily for him. It was so much simpler to do things that showed he cared - or that he hoped revealed how he felt. Like getting that security system installed to safeguard his friend's life. Blair knew him so well that Jim was pretty sure his friend had understood that he was doing more than just contributing to the Center.

Closing his eyes, he focused on how it had felt to hug Blair, and how his friend's skin had felt under his lips and the slightly salty taste and the distinct scent of his partner that had lingered after he'd abruptly, if reluctantly, left to get into the cab. He wanted so much more but at least he could touch again without Blair pulling away.

And, thank God, those wary shadows in Blair's eyes had disappeared. But Blair's hesitation about agreeing to return told him that he had a ways to go to win back the trust he'd lost. He'd made a fair beginning but there was still a lot of ground to cover. He would just have to keep working at it, showing by word and deed that Blair could rely upon him again. At least Blair was willing to give him a chance to make up for past wrongs. They'd work it out. He had to believe that, just had to.

Surrounded and soothed by Blair's scent he was able to relax and fall asleep.

**

First thing the next morning, Jim called Joel, who was covering MCU while Simon continued his recovery at home.

"Hey, Jim, how're you guys doin'?" Joel drawled, his comforting tones as rich as warm molasses.

"Big happenings, Joel," Jim returned, forcing a cheerfulness into his voice he didn't quite feel. "Blair's taken on the job of Director at the new Community Center on Shaunnessey, in the old Cramer Gym. Orvelle Wallace is the sponsor and he's asked him to live in the apartment above the place for the next six months, so the neighborhood kids get used to having a safe place if they need it, day or night."

"Huh," Joel grunted as he assimilated the information. "That's Flames' turf."

"Yep, and a few of them were hanging around yesterday, showing their colors. I flashed my badge and they faded, but I doubt that'll keep them away."

"Our Community Policing Unit is pretty good at showing our own colors, especially in support of new establishments like Blair's. I'll let 'em know about it; see if we can have some extra patrols around there at night."

"I'd appreciate that," Jim replied gratefully. "And, the Center could use some volunteers ."

"I hear you." Joel laughed. "I'll pass the word around. I'm, uh, glad that Blair's landed on his feet so fast. I guess Orvelle must have his own ideas about what went down, huh?"

"According to Blair, he does, and I'm glad of it," Jim said. "Sandburg well ."

"Blair's a damned good friend, that's what he is," Joel supplied when Jim's voice drifted off. "Look, man, we may not have all the details, but we know the two of you. What happened is a damned shame, but if Blair thought what he did was necessary, we're not gonna second guess him. Whatever the two of you need, you got."

"Thanks, Joel," he said huskily, disgusted with himself for his hesitation in simply spitting out what Blair had done for him. If he was going to keep to his promises, he had to do a lot better - and the place to start was with their friends and colleagues. Determined to move forward with his commitment to make things right, he went on, "Look, I'll come in early next week and, uh, and share the details with you and the others. You all deserve to know the truth."

"Look forward to seeing you. In the meantime, I better get on the line to the CPU, an' then get some volunteers signed up. Let me know if you need anything else."

"Will do, thanks."

Next, Jim called Simon and brought him up to speed on the latest developments.

"Good for Blair," Banks said firmly. "That's a great job for him. I'm sure he'll do very well."

"Yeah, I'm sure he will, too," Jim agreed. "Not sure I'm all that happy about him living down there, though. He's the wrong color, for one thing. And the Flames aren't going to take the 'invasion' well."

"No, I don't suppose they will." Simon paused. "You've called Joel?"

"Yeah, he's going to get Community Policing involved. And I bought a security system for the place yesterday, and got it installed. I'll arrange for a professional service to get them online today, to make sure if something does go down the uniforms will be alerted immediately."

"That's about all you can do, Jim," Simon reassured him. He paused and then asked, "The two of you doing okay? I mean, it's been a rough time."

"We're getting there," Jim sighed. "He says he's okay with what he did, but I well, I'm having trouble with it. He gave too much. And and it could have implications for him in the future."

"You think the fallout might compromise the support the Center gets from the PD?" Simon probed unhappily.

"I don't know," Jim replied. "I hope not. But let's just say I'm gonna keep an eye on things."

"Good idea. If you think he needs more official support, you let me know," Simon growled. "I'm good at rattling cages."

Smiling, Jim said, "I know you are, sir. I'll keep you informed."

Simon laughed, and they went on to exchange their mutual frustrations at being walking wounded before they ended the call.

As he hung up the phone, Jim wondered if Orvelle had realized that, by bringing in Blair, he was assuring the Center of very personal police support and attention. Knowing how smart the man was, Jim figured the Jags' coach had been very aware of what he was doing. He'd done Blair a huge favour, but he was also taking care of the community.

Jim tried to take it easy and keep off his leg, but the silence of the loft, even when the television was on, grated on his nerves. Grumbling irritably to himself, he clicked off the TV, and thought about his relationship with Blair. Relationship. A loaded word - but the right one. Leaning his head back on the chair, he closed his eyes to concentrate upon all the things he had to make right.

Frowning, he remembered the wariness in Blair's voice when Jim had called the day before, and again later, in the kid's eyes when Blair first spotted him at the Center. He was deeply sorry Blair was so unsure of him now. Blair loved him; he knew that, though he was less certain of the exact nature of that love. Sure as hell, Steven would never have done what Blair had done for him. Simon had covered for him for years, but would he give up his career if push really came to shove? Maybe, but that was a stretch for even the best of friends.

No, what Blair felt for him was as unique as what he felt for Blair. Part of it was the peculiar nature of their partnership, one grounded in his senses and Blair's help in managing them and in protecting him when he was vulnerable. But Jim hoped it was more than that. For him it was certainly more. Had been, he guessed, for a long time, though he'd never admitted it until those harrowing minutes at the fountain, when he thought he'd lost Blair forever. Somehow, he needed to find out if it was more for Blair, too. But but first he had to deal with a lot of other stuff.

His mind drifted back to the wariness and he sighed. Yeah, Blair loved him and he'd gained some ground the day before toward restoring their ease with one another - but Blair didn't trust him, not like he used to. Not unconditionally. And, Jim reflected sorrowfully, for good reason. Grimacing, he kneaded the back of his neck. It was going to be humiliating, but he was going to have to 'fess up to why he'd behaved the way he had over the dissertation leak. And that was probably the place to begin winning back Sandburg's trust.

Shoving himself to his feet, he called a cab, pulled on his jacket, and left the loft.

**

Blair rose early that morning. After showering, he unpacked his clothing and emptied the box of books into the bookcase in the living room. Then, thinking about his car and wondering if it had been safe from the Flames' depredations, he went downstairs and out the back way. To his relief, he found the locked garage intact. Maybe they didn't know his car was in there - and, with luck, maybe they'd never find out because he doubted the padlock would withstand any concerted assault. With a philosophical shrug, he decided there wasn't much more he could do to keep the Volvo secure.

When his stomach growled, he realized he was hungry for the first time in days, but he hadn't had time to buy any food the day before. Figuring it was a good opportunity to check out his new neighborhood, he ambled down the alley on the far side of the pawnshop to the street and then to the bakery. After introducing himself to Amelie, the middle-aged, gregarious woman behind the counter, he enjoyed a coffee and bagel in her company. She told him in no uncertain terms that the opening of the community center was the best thing that had happened in the neighborhood for years, and she refused to take his money for the light breakfast.

"Come in anytime," she called as he left. He grinned and said he'd be seeing her again soon.

On his way back to his car to do a run for groceries, he encountered kids he'd met the day before, who were now on their way to school. For a moment, he was disconcerted, having lost track of the calendar given all that had been going on and only then realized that it was Monday. Doing his best to remember names, he wished them well and said he hoped he'd see them later. Most chorused as they ran off, "Fer sure, man!"

He kept an eye out for gang members but didn't see any, and he wondered if they only prowled later in the day and at night. Once again loping down the alley that led from the street to the back lane, he hoped the Flames would soon lose interest in the Center - but he was afraid that was no more than wishful thinking.

On impulse on his way back from the supermarket, he stopped at a hardware store to get another set of keys made for the building. When he drove past the front of Center before turning into the alley to the garage, he grimaced when he saw that the security camera had been smashed and garish epithets had been sprayed on the freshly painted wall. Frowning, he wondered when the damage had been done. Earlier that morning, he'd been watching the street, alert for trouble, and hadn't glanced at the building as he'd ducked in and out of the side alley.

Shaking his head ruefully at what was likely to become an ongoing part of the running battle with the Flames, he locked the garage and lugged his groceries inside and up to his kitchen. Replacing that camera every day could get expensive but there wasn't a lot of choice. He'd been very grateful when Jim had provided the equipment the day before. After the gang had pummeled the door the night before, he'd been damned glad to know the security system had been installed and that, as a minimum, they wouldn't be able to break in without the alarms going off.

Downstairs, he rewound the security tape to a point preceding the damage, and wasn't surprised to see that the gang members who had defiled the wall and broken the equipment in the dead of night had been wearing their bandanas as masks over their faces. So there was no point in calling in a complaint to the cops. Resignedly, he got a paint can and a brush from the storage room in the back and went outside to cover the lurid curses.

He was just finishing when the cab pulled up and, smiling indulgently, he shook his head when Jim got out.

"Man, you are supposed to be giving your leg a chance to heal, not be chasing all over town," he chastised as he held the door open for his friend.

"I can sit here as well as I can sit at home," Jim retorted. Scowling, he jerked a thumb at the freshly repainted wall and looked coldly up at the damaged camera. "The Flames?" he asked rhetorically. "You call in a complaint?"

Waving him inside, Blair replied, "I checked the tape. They were wearing masks, so no way to know who the culprits were. I'll replace the camera and position it higher so it'll be less easy to reach with a rock or stick."

Inside, he led the way to the games room. "You want coffee?" he asked, as he slid the paint can and brush into the cupboard under the sink and then filled the carafe.

"Sure, sounds good." Jim studied the furniture and finally chose a chair that both looked comfortable and had a view of the doorway.

Blair wandered over as the coffee was percolating and, perching on the arm of a nearby sofa, he fished in the front pocket of his jeans for the spare set of keys. Holding them out, he said, "I got these for you, so you can come and go whenever you want."

"Thanks, Chief," he replied with a smile as he took them, clearly heartened by the gesture.

After Blair filled two mugs and had settled in a chair facing him, Jim said carefully, "I've been doing a lot of thinking and I'm not too happy with myself right now." He took a deep breath and went on, "I didn't realize it but but I guess I was testing you."

"Testing me?" Blair echoed with a puzzled frown.

"Yeah," Jim sighed. He sipped at his coffee and then continued awkwardly, "I, uh, I guess part of me was jealous of Rainier and your other work. I I didn't want I wanted our partnership to keep going, even though, intellectually, I knew it probably had to end sometime." Setting the mug down on the small table beside him, he linked his fingers together and hunched forward. "Maybe I better back up a bit. There's stuff I never told you."

Huffing a laugh, Blair quirked a brow and quipped, "Like that's a surprise."

"Yeah, well," Jim shrugged, "you know I hate the mystical shit." He licked dry lips and plunged on. "About the same time that Alex showed up in Cascade, I had a vision. I was hunting in the jungle and I heard a wolf howl. I thought it was stalking me and I I shot it with my crossbow. When I downed it, I went to check that it was dead. And it it morphed into you. And you were dead."

He looked up to see Blair staring at him, mouth slightly agape. "Scared the shit out of me, Chief," he admitted. "I I thought I was somehow going to get you killed. And and I did."

"Jim, you didn't kill me," Blair cut in sharply, though the vision bothered him and he could well understand why it had scared Jim. Had it been a premonition? Did Jim have precognitive abilities they'd never suspected? Reluctantly, he set the idea aside for discussion at a later time in order to concentrate on what Jim was telling him.

"I might as well have," he insisted gruffly. "I cut you loose for no good reason. Yeah, sure, I was pissed off that you hadn't told me she was a sentinel sooner, but you had a reason. Your research. But that, that just made me feel like like I came second, you know? To the research. To Rainier. And and I wanted to punish you, I guess. But it was stupid, Chief. Criminally stupid. I knew she was a sentinel. And she knew what you are to me, what you mean to me. And that you give me an edge. I should have known she'd target you to get at me. To make me weaker."

"Jim, at that point, we had every reason to believe she'd already left Cascade with the nerve gas. One of the reasons you were so furious was because there was no way to know where she'd gone or to stop her from maybe killing millions of innocent people. You couldn't have known she'd come after me," he insisted.

Shrugging uncomfortably, Jim grimaced and went on, "The point is, I left you at risk because I was furious about the fact that I was just another research subject, when I thought I should be a helluva lot more."

"And you were right," Blair replied evenly. "I screwed up royally, Jim. What happened was as much my fault as yours. More my fault. I'm really, really sorry that I made you feel like a thing, or that all I cared about was my research. I should have told you sooner, and if I had, we might have caught her then and all the rest of it wouldn't have happened. If I'd used my head and really thought about why you'd kicked me out of the loft, I would have realized you were probably subliminally smelling her on me, so that made me suspect, dangerous to have around. Neither one of us understood at the time but, looking back, I've figured that was the underlying problem. On an unconscious level, I compromised your trust in me."

Rubbing his hands together, Jim thought about that. "Maybe," he allowed with a thoughtful frown and nodding slowly. "Makes sense." But then he shook his head. "No, no, that's too easy, Chief. I think you did try to tell me at one point but I cut you off - and, later, I wasn't listening to anything or anyone. I was too caught up in in sensing that something was wrong but I didn't know what. I wasn't thinking straight. Just reacting."

"Don't be so hard on yourself," Blair replied. "We'd never encountered another sentinel before and certainly not a predator like her. Neither one of us put the pieces together - but I knew there was another sentinel in the city and I should have figured out you were sensing her presence and that was why you you got so wired. So stop beating yourself up about what happened. The bottom line here, Jim, is that you brought me back. I'd be dead if you hadn't done whatever it was you did. I owe you my life."

"You don't owe me anything." Jim's breathing caught as he closed his eyes and shook his head. "Chief, you don't know when I saw you facedown in that pool, when we couldn't revive you ." He shivered at the memories. Hoarsely, his voice taut and low, he revealed, "If you hadn't hadn't come back, I would have followed you." Flicking a look at Blair, he said, "It's just that simple, Chief. I, I couldn't lose you like that. I couldn't let you go." He hesitated and then added, "I don't want to ever let you go."

Blair pressed his lips together and bowed his head. Taking a shuddering breath, he nodded slowly as he fought to contain the surge of emotion that filled his chest. They'd never spoken about those moments - nobody had ever told him how that morning had played out. He'd wondered how Jim had reacted, to find him dead. God help him, he'd wondered if Jim had really cared. But seeing how devastated Jim was by the memories of that day, he could no longer doubt those moments had been terrible for his friend. He felt a knot inside loosen with the sure knowledge that Jim hadn't brought him back out of guilt, but because he really hadn't wanted to lose him. And the thought that Jim had been prepared to follow after him was staggering. Badly needing to lighten the conversation for both of them, to somehow distance them from the overwhelming emotions, he quipped, "I guess it's a good thing I came back then, huh?"

"A very good thing, Chief," Jim agreed, ignoring his attempt at levity. "I should have told you all this long ago, but I was, was scared, I guess. I've, uh, I've never been dependent on anyone before, not since I was a kid. But I need you in my life, Blair. I knew that then, and I know it now."

Before Blair could respond, he hastened on. "Anyway, I was telling you that I was caught in this resentment about your work at Rainier. And I think that's partly why I wasn't able to resist Alex in Mexico. There may have been some, I don't know, mystical bullshit going on, but I think I was punishing you for for working with her, for working on your dissertation, for only seeing me as a lab rat."

Blair sagged back in the chair and felt a rush of sorrow. "I'm so sorry, man," he rasped. "I never, never wanted to make you feel that way."

"Yeah," Jim breathed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I know that. In my head, I know that. But I think it was the same thing happening again when the dissertation got leaked to the press. After I knew it wasn't your fault, I was still furious. Partly because everything was out of control and it was driving me nuts, sure, but but I hated that you'd written it at all."

"Oh, man," Blair began, but Jim cut him off.

"Please, just let me finish, okay?" Locking his hands together, Jim swallowed hard, took a breath and said sorrowfully, "I I'd wanted you to choose, between me and and your career. I didn't know that's what I was doing but that's what it was all about. And you're right. I expected you to fix things, like you always fix things having to do with my senses. Only there didn't seem to be any way to stop what was happening and it seemed to me that I'd lost and your career had won. When I said I wanted things to go back to the way they were, I thought it was all over. I was hurt and angry and I wanted to hurt you because because with the research done and the paper out there, I couldn't see any reason why you'd stay. I never really thought you did it for the money or fame or even that Nobel nomination, but I was sure you were going to leave because your work with me was finished. So I went for a pre-emptive strike as if I didn't care, as if I wanted you to go. But I just I just wanted ."

His voice fell away and he shook his head. "I swear I never expected anything like what you did for me. I guess I got what I asked for, though, huh?" he said with bitter self-recrimination. "You chose me. Only, only, it cost more than I ever imagined. I just never envisioned a time when you wouldn't be my partner. In my head, that was something permanent. Something I didn't want to change. I'm sorry, Blair. I really screwed things up for both of us by being too stubborn to talk to you before it was all too late."

Blair regarded him silently for a long moment, while he thought about what Jim had said. On some level, he supposed he should be angry but he wasn't. Instead, he felt wild relief. He'd thought Jim had hated him during those awful days and nights. Had wanted him to get out, to disappear; had regretted they'd ever met. And believing all that had been devastating. But this this meant that he was, in some ways, as important and as necessary to Jim as Jim was to him. He shuddered and had to cross his arms to hold in his crazy impulse to throw himself at the man, to hold him close and kiss him breathless. With a convulsive swallow, he finally rasped, "Well, as a pop-quiz, I gotta say it was a killer. But, at least I passed, huh?"

Evidently expecting anger and censure, Jim gaped at him speechlessly. His eyes glazed and he had to look away, blinking hard, and his hands gripped the arms of his chair. Nodding jerkily, he choked, "Yeah, kid. You passed, alright. With flying colors." Bowing forward, he covered his face with his hands. "But you deserved better than that from me. A lot better."

Blair got up to perch on the arm of the couch beside Jim's chair. Reaching out, he gripped his friend's shoulder. "Enough," he whispered fiercely, not trusting his voice to speak any louder. "We both screwed up, Jim."

Leaning closer, he put his arm around Jim's shoulders to draw the man against his body, and he could feel Jim's tremors as he struggled to get himself under control. His own throat tightened in response and he swallowed hard. "I I could have told you that I wanted to be your permanent partner," he offered, "but I was too afraid of imposing on you, of assuming that what I wanted was what you wanted, too. And I should have told you straight off when I knew Naomi had leaked the paper, so you wouldn't be blindsided the way you were. I could have been a lot clearer about how tired I was getting of the university scene, how empty and futile I found the stupid political games and posturing. But I didn't. You're good, but you can't read minds, Jim."

When Jim just shook his head, his head still bowed, Blair rubbed his shoulder. "Thank you for telling me what was going on from your side, man. Makes sense of a lot that I just couldn't understand. I was I was really afraid you hated me, you know? So, so I'm really glad to know I'm not the only one who wanted our partnership to go on forever."

"I never hated you, Blair. I'm sorry I acted like I did." Jim sniffed and swiped at his eyes. "I, uh, there's more I want to talk about, Chief. But maybe that's enough for today, huh?"

Smiling gently, Blair nodded as he eased away, though he left a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Given it's a lot more than you've said pretty much since the day we met, it's probably enough to last for the next five years."

Jim barked a laugh and finally met Blair's eyes. "I guess I deserved that," he muttered. But, sobering, he added, "There is more, a lot more. I know you don't trust me like you used to, and we need to talk about that, too. And, and we need to figure out where we go from here. How we fix things so you can work with me again. But, I guess since you'll be busy here for the next six months, we've got time to figure all that out."

"I don't distrust you."

"Yeah, well, you don't distrust a powder keg, either, but you keep an eye on it, never knowing if it's going to blow up or not," he returned wryly.

Blair quirked a brow at the analogy, but grudgingly nodded. Much as he was very deeply touched by Jim's disclosures, he did wonder how long it would last before Jim lost confidence in him again. And he still had no clue how he could ever be credible at the PD. His friend was right. They had a long way to go. But neither one of them was up to more baring of the chest; there was a limit to how much naked emotion either of them could take at one sitting.

Looking around the lounge, searching for a distraction, he asked, "How much do you know about being a director of a community center? Because I gotta tell you, I really don't have a clue about what I'm doing here."

Jim blinked at the non sequitur, and then his expression cleared, as if he well understood and was grateful that Blair was only creating a handy distraction to get them on easier emotional ground. "Well, let's see. You'll need files; you know, to keep track of supplies, expenditures, stuff like that. A sign-in sheet, to see who's coming and going, to get a handle on your clientele. Probably could use a list of addresses of who lives where in the neighborhood, with phone numbers, you know, in case someone gets hurt or something and you need to call their parents. You need to check your insurance. And you need an inventory of all the equipment."

"Whoa, okay, that's enough to get started," Blair cut in, laughing and lifting his hands in self-defense. "Let's go check out the office and see what we've already got and start a list of what's needed."

"Sounds like a plan, Chief," he agreed, pushing himself to his feet.

As they left the lounge, Jim looped an arm around his shoulders, and he was deeply pleased when Jim drew him close to his side. Putting his arm around Jim's waist, he lent support as his friend hobbled along the hall.

**

They'd been working in the cubbyhole for just over an hour when they heard the outer door open. Blair got up to see who had arrived, and Jim shifted his chair to look out into the entry area. A group of teenagers straggled in, three girls with babies in their arms and two guys, all of them old enough to be dropouts and, apparently, none of them working during the day. Jim thought one of the boys showed signs of drug use; he was jumpy, kept swiping at his runny nose, and his eyes were bloodshot. Maybe the kid just had a cold, but the detective in him doubted it.

He listened as Blair showed them into the lounge and encouraged them to make use of the games provided. Blair asked them about school and jobs, and Jim's assumptions were confirmed; unemployed dropouts. Shaking his head, he sighed and went back to labeling file folders. When Blair rejoined him, he muttered, "Better count the silverware before that bunch leaves. One of 'em looks like he might be casing the joint to see what he can rip off to pay for his habit."

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing," Blair replied with a short, sad shake of his head.

Jim smiled wryly. He'd always be suspicious, and Blair would always regret that those less fortunate had a hard row to hoe.

"Jim, sorry, man, but I'm going to abandon you for awhile and see if I can get these kids talking. After more than three years with the PD, let alone counseling poor students at Rainier, I've picked up a fair amount of info here and there about social services. Maybe I can tell them about options for training programs or something that they haven't already heard about."

"Hey, don't apologize, Chief," he returned. "It's your job. I'll just carry on playing secretary."

Blair grinned. "You know, if I'd known you were as good at this administration stuff as you are, you wouldn't have suckered me into doing so much of your paperwork for you the last few years."

"I never said I couldn't do it," Jim rejoined with a shrug. "I just normally avoid it like the plague." With a rueful look at his leg, he added, "But since I'm chained to a chair anyway, I figure I might as well be of some use."

Patting him on the shoulder, Blair teased, "Well, I think you make a terrific secretary."

"Right," Jim grunted. "Every guy's dream."

"Guess it depends on the guy," he replied as he turned to go back to the lounge, leaving Jim to wonder if there was a hidden meaning there, or if he was just looking too hard to see what he hoped to see. Sighing, he shook his head and reached for the telephone book.

After riffling through the yellow pages, he called the ACE Security company. "Hello, my name is Jim Ellison, and I'm a detective with Cascade PD. I want to arrange security services for the Shaunnessey Street Community Center, today, if possible."

He listened, nodding to himself. "Yeah, the full deal, inside as well as outside. It's a rough neighborhood and the Director lives above the place. I don't want him getting attacked or burned up in the middle of the night." He nodded again and then relayed his credit card information, to have the monthly billing charged to his account. Satisfied, he began labeling a new folder, 'ACE Security'.

Half an hour later, the outer door banged open with an aggressive thump. Blair appeared out of the lounge almost as quickly as Jim swiveled his chair around to see who had come in and he stiffened when he saw it was nearly a dozen gang members wearing their scarlet bandanas either tied over their heads as caps or around their necks.

"Afternoon," Blair greeted them, his voice level as he moved to stand between them and the hall to the games room and the gym beyond. "Nice of you to drop by. I'm the Director, Blair Sandburg."

"'S a commoonity center, right?" one of them drawled as he pulled his knife from the sheath at his waist and made a show of cleaning his fingernails. "Thought we'd check the place out. Being members of the commoonity, an' all." The others sniggered nastily.

"Everyone who lives in the area is welcome to use the facilities," Blair told them. "But there are a few rules. No colors inside, so lose the scarves. And no weapons. I'll lock them in the office and you can pick them up when you leave."

His comments occasioned riotous laughter. "You should be on stage, man," the ringleader taunted. "Yo a real funny guy." But then his expression grew threatening as he stepped closer. "Who's gonna take our weapons offa us? You?"

Jim rose to stand in the doorway. Pulling out his badge, he asked mildly, "Anything I can help you with, Mister Sandburg?"

The gang members stiffened. "What?" one of them demanded. "You his pet cop or somethin'? Ain't you got no place else to be evra day?"

Jim just cocked a brow and stared the kid down.

"So, what's it going to be?" Blair asked. "You want to come in or are you going to move along?"

The leader sneered at him and cast a dyspeptic look at Jim. "We'll be goin' for now, white boy. But yore tame cop won't always be aroun'. You think on that."

Jim crossed his arms. "And you think about the fact that I know what you slime look like. So if Mister Sandburg here has any problems, I'll know who to come looking for. Got that?"

"Yeah, yeah, I hear ya, dude," he drawled as they turned away and went back outside to drift off along the street.

"They're going to be trouble, Chief."

Blair nodded. "Guess I better get that security camera fixed."

"Uh, I took care of that," Jim told him. "ACE Security will be sending someone over later this afternoon to upgrade what's here and initiate twenty-four hour monitoring."

"You didn't have to do that, Jim - but, thanks. I really appreciate it," Blair replied soberly. "What's it going to cost?"

"Don't worry about that," he answered, looking away. "It's taken care of."

Affectionate gratitude glowed in Blair's eyes as he murmured, "You're too much, man, you know that?"

"Vested interest, Chief," Jim returned with a shrug, but was pleased by his friend's reaction. Meeting Blair's gaze, he added, "I'll sleep better at night if I'm not worried about the Flames breaking in here or burning the place down around you."

"Uh huh," Blair nodded with a slow smile. "Trust me; I'll sleep better, too."

**

Kids poured into the Center once school ended that day, filling the lounge. The basketball players all showed up, bringing more of their friends with them, for that day's practice session. When the ACE Security technician arrived, Jim took him in hand, making his requirements clear and overseeing the installation of internal cameras, heat sensors and motion detectors. And he made sure all the exterior cameras, including a new one positioned to monitor the garage where Blair's Volvo was parked, were mounted high enough to survive all but the most determined assault and, even then, they would have to be shot out rather than simply clubbed.

After the basketball practice, Blair went upstairs to make sandwiches for them and they ate in the lounge while chatting with kids who barely disappeared long enough to dash home for supper before returning.

Blair encouraged youngsters and adolescents to talk about their schoolwork, interests and hobbies, and impressed upon them the importance of doing their homework religiously. When some muttered about it being too hard, or nobody being at home to help, he told them to bring their stuff in and he'd help them. A number of the kids who weren't yet at the stage of pretending they didn't care if they did well or not, appeared both surprised and relieved by his offer.

Meanwhile, sitting down with some of the older boys sprawled over the couches and chairs, Jim asked about their plans for the future. When one shrugged and said he'd like to get more schooling but couldn't afford it, Jim told him the military might be an option to consider, as they gave excellent job training and paid for further education if people showed officer potential. Several of the youths looked intrigued and nodded thoughtfully. One asked what it was like to be a soldier and Jim found himself enjoying the experience of sharing some of his unclassified adventures. It felt good to know he was maybe helping kids to make healthy and positive choices about the paths they chose to follow in their lives. If the ideas he shared could keep them from joining gangs in order to satisfy their needs for affiliation and belonging, he'd consider his time more than well spent.

A little after seven PM, Jim got a real kick out of Blair's delighted astonishment when Henri Brown showed up with some members of his jazz band, all of them carrying one instrument or another, from guitars, to a saxophone, and even a portable keyboard.

"Man, what's all this?" Blair exclaimed with a broad smile.

"Just an impromptu jazz session," H replied with a wide grin of his own. "You got somewhere we can set up?"

"Absolutely! Follow me," he said enthusiastically, as he led them to the lounge end of the games room.

For the next two hours, Henri and his buddies entertained the kids and several adults who heard the music from the street and wandered in to see what was going on. In between numbers, the guys told jokes and teased various members of their audience. When they finished, Brown asked, "So, anybody here think they'd like to learn to play one of these instruments?"

There was an excited chorus of shouted responses from the kids and he laughed. "Okay. Here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna donate these here instruments to the Center and we've brought along a whole bunch of self-teaching music books you can get started with. Next Sunday afternoon and again next Monday night, we'll be back to see how you're doin' and to give some instruction. Maybe in a few weeks, a few of you will be sitting up here with us, showin' off your stuff. Sound good?"

The kids cheered and many jumped up to mob the band, excitedly reaching for the music books Henri and the others pulled out of their bags. Half an hour later, Blair shooed the younger kids out, telling them it was late and a school night, and it was time to go home. There were a lot of groans, but the place slowly began to empty.

"H, I can't tell you how much I appreciate you guys coming and playing tonight," Blair enthused as he and Jim walked along the hall with Brown and his friends. "And donating those instruments, offering lessons, man, that's above and beyond, but thank you. Thank you so much. These kids need the encouragement."

"Yeah, well, what you're doing here is a good thing, Hairboy. The schools've all pretty much cut out their music programs, but a lot of these kids'll show talent, you wait and see. We're glad to encourage that. Oh, and we're gonna ask for donations at our gigs, so we can buy more instruments for the Center as time goes on."

"That's a great idea," Jim interjected. "Blair, you might want to do the same thing. You know, distribute cans where people can donate loose change at local businesses and maybe in the teacher lounges in the neighborhood schools. Might be surprising how quickly that'll add up."

Blair nodded. "Yeah," he murmured thoughtfully and then smiled. "I'll take care of that tomorrow." As he walked Brown and his friends to the door, he said again, "Thanks, H - all of you. Really, guys, this is just great, really, really great."

Brown gripped his shoulder and regarded him with a slow, easy smile. "Well, Blair, I figured if I wanted to see something of you now that you won't be downtown, at least not on a regular basis, I was gonna have to come to you. Don't want to lose track of you, Hairboy."

"You're welcome here, anytime, man. Always great to see you," Blair replied. "I was hoping I wouldn't lose track of you, either."

Jim stayed until ten, when Blair chased out the lingering older adolescents and closed up for the night. "Looks like your new Center is an instant success, Chief," he observed as he draped an arm around Blair's shoulders while they waited at the entrance for his cab.

"I really appreciate you being here, to help me get it up and running," Blair said, but his gaze dropped to Jim's leg, which he was obviously favoring. "But you're hurting, man. I can see it in your eyes. You need help with your dials?"

"Nah, I'll fix them on the ride home," Jim assured him, but hated the fact that he was again going home alone. Looking down into those wide eyes filled with concern for him, Jim felt his breath catch and he had to fight his impulse kick the door closed and kiss Blair senseless. Swiftly, he looked back at the street before he lost all control. Not even daring to risk another chaste kiss in case he lost it completely, he contented himself with tightening his grip and drawing Blair closer to his side.

"Alright, but if you need a day or two just to rest your leg at home, do it," Blair insisted. "I love having you here, but I don't want you overdoing it, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," Jim replied, waving off his concerns as he stepped away toward the taxi that was pulling up at the curb. "I'll see you in the morning."

"Night, Jim," he called as Jim got into the cab.

"Night, Chief."

**

On to Part 2