Too Little, Too Late, part 2 by Arianna

Blair waited until the taxi pulled away from the curb and then, conscious of the gang members lurking in the nearby shadows, he quickly retreated inside and locked up tight. Crossing his arms, he leaned back against the door, waiting. But all he heard was eerie laughter that made his skin crawl. His gaze darted around the huge, empty building that reminded him of the warehouse and the rats, and how cold it had been - and the shocking terror of the sudden explosion and fire. Swallowing, he shivered and wished he didn't feel so alone. He hated the sense of being hunted, and being so damned scared left him feeling sick with humiliation.

Taking a deep breath, he forced himself away from the door. "Get over it, already," he growled. "Are you a man or a mouse?" With an uneasy chuckle at his own expense, he muttered disparagingly, "Mouse. Definitely a mouse. God, what a wimp."

Stiff with apprehension, he walked through the Center, putting equipment and games away, and turning off lights as he returned to the front and the stairway up to his apartment. Slowly climbing the steep steps, he was conscious of every creak and groan in the old building and he longed with almost desperate yearning to be back in the loft.

He lay awake for a long time expecting trouble, but nothing happened. To get his mind off his fears, he thought about how much he'd enjoyed spending the day with Jim and how much he appreciated Henri's unexpected appearance and support. Closing his eyes, remembering Jim's firm arm around his shoulders and how good it had felt to be drawn so closely against his friend's body, he found himself wishing that Jim had again kissed his brow before leaving. Snorting at his wistful and hopeless yearnings, he curled onto his side and, finally, he fell into an uneasy sleep.

The next morning when he went downstairs to open up, he discovered the outside wall had again been offensively redecorated. His jaw tightened with grim determination and he stomped back inside to get the paint can and the brush, cursing when he realized he'd forgotten to clean it the day before. Grateful that it was a water-based paint, he washed the gluey, dried residue away and went back outside. While he painted, he could feel gang members staring daggers at his back, but he refused to give them the satisfaction of showing how nervous he felt.

With as much cheerfulness as he could muster, he greeted the kids on their way to school. When he finished the cleanup, before heading back inside, he turned to meet the crowd of hostile eyes glaring at him from across the street. Though he knew it was stupid to provoke them, he was also sick of feeling intimidated, so he sketched a flippant salute, before casually re-entering the building. Going straight to his office, he checked the security video and noted the time when the masked vandals had done the damage. There was still no way to identify the miscreants, but maybe he could do something to discourage their vandalism. Picking up the phone, he called the number for the Community Policing Unit, identified himself, reported the two incidents and requested additional patrols around midnight.

"Blair Sandburg, huh?" the anonymous voice repeated flatly on the other end of the line. "Sure thing," he went on sarcastically, "we'll be sure an' go out of our way to make you feel all safe and secure."

Gritting his teeth, he thanked them for their support and hung up. For the first time, he realized he could be in a world of trouble if he ever did need police assistance. Odds were he'd wait for it in vain. He stood in thought for a moment, and then he called ACE Security to insist they automatically report any trouble they picked up on their monitors and not wait until someone tried to break in.

After that, he returned to the apartment to retrieve his cell phone and programmed several new numbers into his speed dial, including the MCU main line, Joel's home number, and 911. If he called the last number during an emergency and help failed to come, at least there'd be a record of both his call and the one from the security company so he'd have grounds for a formal complaint, if need be. In the meantime, by calling MCU or Joel at the same time, he could be sure that someone would respond. Grimly stuffing the phone in his pocket, he went back down to the office.

Very aware that he was alone in the building and the door was now unlocked, as it had to be since normal hours of operation had begun, he tried to concentrate on his paperwork. But his eyes kept drifting to the security monitors lined up on the top of the file cabinets. He could see the whole street in front of the Center, as well as the back alley, and he watched as members of the Flames prowled past almost continuously.

The minutes trickled by with agonizing slowness and his tension mounted. He was sure that they knew he was alone, and he was equally certain that if they were going to try anything, it would be before any possible witnesses showed up. Raking his hair back, he fought his fear. "You're making yourself crazy," he mumbled, forcing his attention back to his work.

When Jim arrived just after eleven, calling out as he came through the door, Blair closed his eyes, feeling weak with relief. But he quickly pasted on a smile as he stood to meet his friend and lead the way to the lounge, where he put on a fresh pot of coffee.

Watching him with narrowed eyes, Jim asked tautly, "You okay?"

"Yeah, sure, why wouldn't I be?" he replied, but he kept his back turned as he fussed with pulling down mugs from the cupboard.

"I smelled fresh paint outside," his friend went on.

"Yeah, well," Blair sighed as he finally turned around and crossed his arms, "I think it's gonna be a morning routine around here. Get up, shower, paint the building, have breakfast."

"They're getting to you, aren't they, Chief?"

Blair looked at his friend and knew there was no point in denying it. Jim could read him like a book. "Yeah, I guess. I hate it - the fact that they intimidate me."

"Be stupid not to be intimidated," Jim replied. "Those kids are armed barracudas."

Swallowing, Blair nodded and turned to pour the coffee. "I called the CPU and reported the vandalism. Gave them the time from the security tape and asked for an extra patrol at night. And I checked in with ACE Security to confirm they'll also report any vandalism immediately."

"Good." Jim gave a considering look at the longest sofa in the room. "Maybe I should sleep here."

Blair was ashamed by how much he wanted to agree to the idea. But he shook his head. "Nah, I can handle it," he said as he carried the mugs to the table where Jim was sitting. "I lock the place up like Fort Knox at night. It's safe enough, just a bit spooky."

Jim twisted his mug in small circles on the table. "I'm not sure you should be spending the nights here," he finally said. "And I think you need another worker to be here in the mornings, when you open up."

"We don't have a budget for another staff member right now." Blair gazed around the empty room. "But, so far at least, there doesn't seem to be much business in the mornings. Maybe we can stay closed until after lunch, when the dropouts start turning up."

Nodding, Jim pushed. "And at night?"

Sighing, Blair leaned back against his chair. "It's a condition of employment, man, you know that. Orvelle feels the place needs to be occupied 'round the clock, in case some kid gets into trouble and needs a place to go."

"Yeah, well, it's been a long time since Orvelle lived in an inner-city neighborhood. The gangs have gotten a whole lot nastier over the years. I'm not sure how well he understands that. I think you should talk to him about it, Chief."

Blair thought about it, and then shook his head. "No, I think it's important to be here. It's, I don't know, a kind of statement, I guess. That they can't have the neighborhood. It doesn't belong to them. I'm not going to let them chase me out."

Jim arched a brow as he sipped his coffee and studied Blair over the rim of his mug. "You've got more courage than brains, Sandburg," he sighed, shaking his head.

Blair snorted, and then laughed. "Me? Are you kidding? I'm the world's biggest wuss."

Smiling bemusedly, Jim replied, "You're a lot of things, Chief, but wuss has never been one of them."

Pleased and embarrassed in equal measure by the praise, Blair shrugged. But seeing the expression in Jim's eyes that usually meant the man intended to take things into his own hands, he leaned forward and said firmly, "Don't you go talking to Orvelle about this. If they do more than stare and paint graffiti on the building, I'll talk to him myself."

Jim scowled and his lip twisted unhappily. "Once they work themselves up to doing more, it might be too late for talk."

"I have to try, man," Blair argued. "I … I can't start crying wolf before I've even been a week on the job."

"I know," Jim sighed with a small, resigned shake of his head.

Not long after, the drop-out contingent began to wander in to while away the afternoon hours. Blair got them organized around a couple tables where he and Jim played cards and board games with them. Looking over at his friend from time to time, Blair was pleased to hear Jim encouraging the kids to talk about themselves. When one of the youths asked a question about support services that neither he nor Jim could answer, Blair went to the office to get the phone book and note paper to give the girl the numbers and addresses of various social and educational services that might be able to help her.

Just as the school crowd made its appearance, Orvelle arrived, to take on that afternoon's basketball practice. All the activity and chatter, the noise - augmented now by atonal blasts on the saxophone and someone thumping on the keyboard - and laughter filled the Center, and Blair was grateful to be distracted from his increasingly persistent worries about what the Flames might be up to.

That evening, when Joel showed up after dinner to volunteer his time, Blair beamed to see him and greeted him with open arms. "Hey, man," he laughed. "I'm beginning to think this place has been adopted by MCU."

Chuckling, Joel winked at Jim as he replied, "You can thank that guy over there for that. He called me the other day to tell me what you were up to."

Grinning, Blair swiveled to look at Jim. "Why am I not surprised?" he teased as he shook his head with gentle amusement. "Just can't quit playing Blessed Protector, huh?" When Jim blushed slightly, and shrugged, Blair added softly, "Thanks, man." Quickly turning back to Joel, he took the older man by the arm. "C'mon, I'll show you around. God, Joel, it's so good to see you!"

**

Over the course of the week, Jim was pleased that several other members of MCU, Forensics and Admin showed up to take their turns as volunteers, letting Blair know by their presence that he still mattered to them. He was less happy that the Flames continued to lurk around, and the repainting of the outside wall did indeed become a morning ritual. But the gang didn't make any other overt moves. By Friday, Jim was beginning to hope that the obvious police interest in the Center might have discouraged the gang from taking violent action.

Late that afternoon, Jim was in the lounge playing games with the after-school kids, as was Megan who, even with one arm still in a sling, played a mean game of ping-pong, and Blair was coaching the players in the gym. Jim stiffened and frowned when he heard an all too familiar nasal and very annoying voice bossily directing someone else along the hall from the front entrance.

"Angie," he said to one of the young teenagers at his table, "run and tell Mister Sandburg that Don Haas just arrived." She nodded agreeably and scampered out the door just before Haas marched arrogantly into the lounge, his beleaguered cameraman in tow.

The newsman directed his assistant to pan the room before he looked around himself. Haas' eyes widened in surprise when he spotted Jim, and then narrowed in speculation. Holding his microphone like a staff of office, he started across the room, skirting around tables and clusters of kids, who gaped at him and the camera, as if they weren't even there. Jim nodded in acknowledgement and stood, anticipating the questions he knew would soon be fired his way. But before Haas could begin asking why the Cop of the Year was hanging around an inner-city community center, Blair hastened into the lounge, Angie and the tall basketball players trailing along curiously in his wake.

"Mr. Haas," he called in welcome as his gaze raked the room, taking in the reactions of the kids. Some were giggling and waving at the camera, while others cowered nervously behind braver friends. "What brings you to our Community Center?"

Wheeling around to face him, Haas said nastily with a haughty expression, "So, the rumors are true."

Megan caught the ping-pong ball and stiffened, while Jim wondered if moving to stand beside Blair would be of help or only make the situation more awkward for his friend.

Apparently unfazed by the reporter's tone, Blair smiled widely as he glanced at the camera and replied, "Well, if you mean that you've heard that Orvelle Wallace, Coach of the Jags, has opened this Community Center to provide a safe and healthy environment for the children and youth of this neighborhood," he gestured around the room, "then you can readily see that the rumors are true. Would you like a tour of our facilities?"

"I'd like to know how a man who admits to being a liar and fraud winds up being the Director of a facility purporting to provide direction to the youth of our city," Haas shot back, aggressively thrusting his microphone into Blair's face.

That tore it.

Without conscious volition, Jim crossed the space between them and was beside the news reporter in a flash. Taking his arm in a firm grip, he pulled the man around and snapped, "You're out of line, Haas. You have no right to harass Mister Sandburg in his place of employment, especially not in front of the Center's clients."

Haas just smirked at him as he pulled his arm out of Jim's hold. "I'm amazed to find you here, Detective Ellison," he drawled, deliberately and aggressively provocative. "You must be an extraordinarily forgiving man given how Sandburg, here, told so many lies about you for fraudulent purposes. In your position, most people would be avoiding him like the plague."

Jim knew the camera was focused on them, but he didn't care. There was no fucking way he was going to allow this asshole to cause any more grief for Blair than his friend had already suffered. Enough was enough. "Get this straight," he grated, "Blair Sandburg is my best friend. He has never 'used' me and he did not commit fraud."

Snorting, Haas shook his head. "Detective, Sandburg admitted the fraud on national television. He said he lied about you in the paper he wrote."

"Blair's paper was -" he began furiously.

"There is a lot of confusion about what that paper was and wasn't," Blair cut in, deftly sliding between Jim and the reporter. "But that wasn't your question, was it, Mister Haas? You were asking how I got my job," he went on, capturing the reporter and the cameraman's attention as he laid a hand on Jim's arm to unobtrusively both silence him and nudge him away.

Jim's lips thinned in annoyance but he fell back a step, giving Blair the space to handle the situation. However, he refused to back off completely. Depending on how things went, he fully intended to intervene again. Crossing his arms belligerently, he glared at Haas as he fought the urge to wipe the smug smile off the reporter's face.

"I can understand why you'd wonder about that," Blair was saying, his manner candid and pleasant. "I asked Orvelle something similar when he offered me the job as director of this new facility. Orvelle Wallace told me that everyone makes mistakes. And then Orvelle said that everyone has to learn that the mistake isn't the end of it, and that it's important to show we can learn and go on to make worthwhile contributions to our community, and leave the world a bit better place for us having been in it. I'm very grateful that he's given me the chance to do that."

Haas sniffed disparagingly and shifted his attention to Jim. "Is that what you're doing here, Detective? Giving Sandburg a chance to make up for his 'mistake'? Forgive and forget, is that it?"

"There was nothing to forgive," Jim retorted coldly.

"Is that so?" the reporter challenged, interest flaring in his eyes. "Interesting comment given what Sandburg wrote about you in his paper."

Before Jim could reply, he went on quickly, turning back to Blair, "Detective Ellison isn't the only one who seems to be very forgiving. Just before coming here, I spoke to Captain Simon Banks of the Major Crime Unit, Cascade Police Department, to get his comments about your new position. He said he thought you'd do a great job and that Mr. Wallace couldn't have made a better choice. When I told him I found that surprising and asked him what he thought of your so-called dissertation, he told me that he thought the media had gotten everything wrong. According to him, the reason you'd been tagging along with Detective Ellison for so many years, was to conduct research for your dissertation about the police department and - and I quote - 'the thin blue line'. But that's not what that paper was about, was it? So did you lie to Captain Banks for almost four years, as well as to the authorities at Rainier University?"

"No, I didn't. Captain Banks always knew what I was working on," Blair replied civilly. He paused, took a breath, and then went on, "My dissertation is about the law enforcement subculture, and if I ever get it published, I hope it will be a testament to the courage and commitment of the men and women who serve us and protect us at the risk of their own lives."

"W-what?" Haas gabbled, obviously caught off-guard. "But the fraudulent dissertation you wrote was about sentinels and, supposedly, about Detective Ellison's alleged extraordinary senses. Isn't that correct?"

"No, it isn't," Blair said firmly.

Glancing at Blair, Jim wondered where Blair was taking this but, trusting to his friend's ingenuity, he allowed himself a small smile and relaxed marginally. Behind him, Megan muttered approval so softly that no one but him could have heard, "Good on ya, mate. Give 'im hell."

Blair lightly gripped the reporter's arm as he replied with earnest sincerity, "Mister Haas, I said in my press conference that the document leaked to the media by Berkshire Publishing, without my permission, was fiction. And that was the truth." He chuckled disarmingly and shook his head. "My mother surprised me with a visit and, when she learned that the first draft of my dissertation was complete, she thought she'd help me by sending it to an old friend of hers, Sid Graham, a senior editor with Berkshire. Anyway, unbeknownst to me, she accessed the files on my computer. Because I've been fascinated by the myths about sentinels most of my life, and she knew my Master's thesis was about people with one, two or sometimes three genetically enhanced senses, she assumed the sentinel document on my laptop hard drive was the dissertation and sent it, rather than the real draft on the law enforcement community."

"But you're saying that wasn't your dissertation?" Haas clarified with a frown.

"No, a few months ago I gave up hope of writing a dissertation about sentinels," Blair replied, sounding discouraged. "Man, I've spent years searching for someone with five enhanced senses and I even thought I'd finally found someone last year - which was a good thing, because my dissertation committee was pushing for some progress and I needed to get my first chapter in for review. But, well, it turned out the woman wasn't a sentinel. Shortly after that, she left Cascade and I had to face the fact that my dissertation was going nowhere."

Blair sighed and shrugged. "I was disappointed but not surprised. It's because I'd already spent nearly half my life unsuccessfully trying to find a sentinel that I started the parallel research four years ago on the law enforcement subculture, as a fallback dissertation subject."

"So you were writing a dissertation on sentinels," Haas charged.

"At one point, yeah, that's what I wanted to do." Blair hesitated and then went on, "I'm sorry, this is a long story and kinda complicated, but I have been fascinated by the myths of watchmen, guardians and sentinels in virtually every pre-civilized culture, since I was a child." Gesturing, his enthusiasm for his subject apparent, he explained, "My graduate work clearly reveals that some people are born with senses more powerful than the norm - perfume makers, called 'noses', wine tasters, and so on. I believe with all my heart that it is possible for sentinels to exist in our modern world, but I would imagine that they would be confused and in considerable discomfort as a result of not understanding how to manage their senses. Based on my research, I have theories about how such senses can be harnessed effectively so that these individuals could have comfortable, normal, productive lives."

Vastly enjoying his partner's glib performance, Jim was hard-pressed to keep from laughing.

Blair's hands dropped and he slumped a little as he continued, "While I finally accepted that my dissertation was going nowhere, I still wanted to do something for those people out there who may not know why their senses are driving them crazy. So I decided to write a novel to illustrate those theories within a context of an exciting detective story, with the hope that if any real sentinels ever read it, it might help them. And, who knows, one of them might even get in touch with me. It's been my lifelong dream to meet a real sentinel, an individual who has all five senses genetically enhanced."

"And that's the document which featured Detective Ellison?"

"Yeah," Blair agreed, sounding chagrined. "In my spare time, I began writing the novel and I used Jim's name for fun, figuring nobody else would see it until I got serious about the draft and did a final edit prior to sending it to a publisher. And that's the document my mother mistook for my dissertation."

Frowning heavily, Haas shook his head. "Nice try, but no sale. You admitted on national television that you'd committed fraud."

Blair's expression hardened and he leaned aggressively toward the microphone. "At the time," he said coldly, "the media was hounding Detective Ellison, with the result that you and your colleagues allowed a notorious assassin to elude capture, and very nearly aided and abetted an assassination. Because of that interference in Detective Ellison's duties, the very next day Captain Banks and Inspector Megan Connor came very close to being killed by a bullet intended for Detective Ellison. Later, the assassin, Klaus Zeller, also shot up the Police Department and again nearly succeeded in assassinating one of our city's union leaders because you and your colleagues had enabled Zeller's escape when Detective Ellison would have otherwise apprehended him." Glaring briefly at the camera, he asserted, "There was no time for complicated explanations and protestations of the truth - the fact that a simple mistake had been made wouldn't have been very newsworthy, would it? Nor would you and your colleagues have been inclined to back off on your frenzied harassment of Detective Ellison just because I said a mistake had been made. You were having too much fun. So - I gave you headlines that you would pay attention to, and would air on television. And it worked. You left Detective Ellison alone and he was able to do his job."

"If that's the case, why are you here and not back at Rainier?" Haas demanded harshly. "Surely if this is the truth, you wouldn't have been fired and expelled."

"Mister Haas, the Chancellor of Rainier University aided and abetted the illegal release and publication of excerpts of my intellectual property. She invited Sid Graham to her office! And even after I again stated for the umpteenth time that no one had authority to release that paper, she willfully disregarded my instructions, as did Mr. Graham. I have a solid case of illegal dismissal and intellectual property theft - and you can bet that I will be pursuing the matter in due course. But, frankly, long before this incident took place, I had already begun to seriously question my goals and whether I wished to continue to pursue an academic career. I've found it increasingly hollow and pretentious. So I've no interest in returning to those hallowed halls, although I expect I will attain my PhD eventually once my grievances with the institution are resolved. Does that clarify matters for you?"

Entirely disconcerted, Haas blinked and turned back to Jim. "Is this true, Detective?" he demanded.

"Absolutely," Jim confirmed with a small, triumphant smile. "Blair has a lot of great theories about how people could manage enhanced senses, and he rode around with me for years, studying the law enforcement community and our work. The entire purpose of that press conference was to take the heat off me so I could do my job. I hope to see this entire interview on your special report this weekend."

"So, you're saying that there was no fraud, but that the work purporting that you are a sentinel isn't true," Haas persisted.

Jim rubbed his nose and nodded but Blair cut in before Jim could outright lie, "Mister Haas, Detective Ellison and Captain Banks have both clearly stated their views about what happened."

Annoyed, Haas snapped, "If all this is true, why didn't you just submit your real dissertation and clear up all the confusion in the first place?"

"Because I hadn't yet approached my Dissertation Committee about changing my subject of study," Blair replied, sounding weary of the whole discussion. "I don't know if you have any idea how these things work, but a doctoral candidate can be 'all but dissertation' for years. My Committee had shown extraordinary patience and I wanted to have my new research paper nearly finished before I broke it to them that I needed to make a change, so they wouldn't feel I would be wasting more years of their time." He shrugged. "After everything that happened, I wasn't sure anymore that I wanted to even bother. I am seriously disenchanted and disillusioned by the way the Chancellor behaved."

"So you've allowed the lies you told during the press conference to stand," Haas said, shaking his head as if still unconvinced. "And if all this is true, then all that stuff about Orvelle Wallace wanting these kids to see you as an example of someone who could make a big mistake and survive is a sham."

"The people who matter, including Orvelle, know the truth," Blair retorted. "And I don't really care what perfect strangers think of me. As for making a mistake? Well, I did make one - a big one. I used Jim's name in the novel when I shouldn't have and that ultimately caused him and a lot of other people a world of grief. Captain Banks nearly died because of that mistake. So, yeah, I've made a big mistake but that hasn't ended my life or changed the fact that I can still make worthwhile contributions or do meaningful work."

Blair lifted a hand and let it fall. "Anyway, you can see why I thought it would be a whole lot easier to simply redirect the attention of the press rather than try to explain all this stuff about dissertation committees and so on, when all hell was breaking loose with Karl Zeller."

"Pretty amazing story," Haas observed as he scratched his cheek. "I think I'd like to read both the novel and your real dissertation."

"If I ever finish the documents and get them published, I'll send you copies," Blair replied genially. "But right now, I'm pretty busy doing my job here as director. Now, once again, can I offer you a tour of our fine new Community Center?"

"Sure, why not?" the reporter replied with a shrug. Glancing at Jim, he added smugly, "Watch my show this Sunday, Detective. You just might find it of interest."

Jim nodded judiciously. "So long as you get the facts straight, I'm sure I will." He squeezed Blair's shoulder before turning to catch Megan's gaze. She grinned brightly and gave him a conspiratorial wink before resuming her ping-pong game.

While Blair embarked on an enthusiastic commentary about the Center's objectives, Jim went back to the game he'd been playing with the young teenagers.

Angie slipped back into her chair next to his, and said with the solemn street savvy that came from living in a rough neighborhood, "I'm not sure I unnerstood everythin' Mister Sandburg said … and I heard some people saying mean things about him since he started to work here. But … but he's a hero, right? He took the heat so you could do your job and stop that bad man."

"That's right, honey," Jim replied with a glance at Blair who was standing only a few feet away. Pitching his voice with the hope of being heard, and well aware that the cameraman was panning in their direction, he went on, "Mr. Sandburg is a real hero. And you know what? He's saved my life more times than I can count starting with the first day I met him. He's the bravest man I know." Looking around the table at the eager faces as they all hung on his words, he went on, "And you can tell everybody, including him, that I said he's my hero."

"Wow," they chorused in awe. Jim grinned when they scampered away to spread the word. Lifting his gaze, he saw Blair looking at him with stunned surprise in his eyes, and Jim was really glad his friend had apparently heard what he'd said. Even better, he thought, glancing at Haas, so had the newsman.

Blair drew the reporter toward the hall with comments about the gym but the basketball players were blocking the exit from the lounge. "What are you guys doing standing there? Back to the lay-ups!" he commanded with hearty good humor as he herded them and the news team down the hall.

Settling back in his chair, Jim crossed his arms and chuckled softly. Blair had done it! He'd pulled it all out of the fire. Damn, the kid spun a plausible tale. Jim was proud of him. A moment later, Megan slid into a chair at the table.

"That boyo's bloody amazing!" she cheered softly, smiling ear to ear.

"That he is," Jim agreed. "That he is."

They sat in companionable silence, quietly relishing the tour de force they'd witnessed, until they saw Blair pass the doorway with Haas and the cameraman still in tow, evidently in the process of sending the men on their way. Rising, they ambled into the hall and, when the newsmen were finally gone, they converged on Blair.

"Sandy, that was bloody fantastic!" Megan enthused, giving him a hug. "You just sorted the whole lot - which means you can come back and work with us again. No worries."

Leaning close, Jim whispered devilishly, "Is there really a thin blue line paper?"

Blair smiled and shook his head as he stepped out of Megan's embrace. "Nah, but it wouldn't take long to write one. I've got piles of notes and observations that I made over the years." His grin faded and he shrugged. "I didn't make it all up for Haas. Ever since Mexico, I'd been thinking that I'd probably have to change my topic. And I should have. Would have avoided a ton of trouble if I'd gone with my instincts. Anyway, I really could produce a paper pretty quickly, if I ever had to, to prove what I told him."

"Brilliant," Megan grinned.

"My thoughts exactly," Jim agreed with a grin. "Wait'll Simon hears this! Do you really have a lawyer?"

Snickering, Blair shook his head. "Not yet, haven't really had time to give it a lot of thought. But, you know? I think it might be a good idea."

Megan's laughter rang out and Jim joined right in, both of them nearly hysterical with relief that Blair had used the unexpected opportunity of the hostile interview to finesse a solution to the whole damned situation.

"I have got to go tell the rest of the gang," she told them, still grinning. "This is just too a good a story to hang onto."

"Haas looked like he didn't know what hit him," Jim said with fulsome satisfaction. "You did good, Chief. You did real good."

Blair ducked his head but, as soon as Megan dashed off to use the office phone, he looked up and pinned Jim with a sharp look. "You almost told him, didn't you?" he accused. "If I hadn't redirected his interest, you would have blurted out the truth."

Jim shrugged and looked away. "I told you I wasn't going to apologize about our friendship - and that you matter more than what people might think of me."

"Yeah, you did," Blair agreed softly. Lifting his hand, he gripped Jim's arm. "Just don't ever do that again, okay? You nearly gave me a heart attack. Jim … I don't want the world knowing everything. That would be too dangerous for you."

"I know, Chief, and I appreciate that," he replied, looking down at his friend. "And I appreciate you covering for me again, protecting me again. But I'm not going to stand back anymore and watch you take a load of crap."

Smiling up at him, Blair shook his head but let it go. "Hero, huh? Did you really mean that?"

"Yeah," Jim said as he threw an arm around Blair's shoulders and drew him toward the lounge. "My hero." He grinned when Blair looped an arm around his waist and leaned in close as they sauntered down the hall.

"Works both ways, man," Blair murmured. "Works both ways."

**

Within an hour, the other members of MCU, including Simon, arrived at the Center, several of them carrying bottles of champagne in discreet brown bags that they ferried up to Blair's apartment until the Center was closed for the night. And Orvelle arrived, too, after the Jags game finished that evening, because Blair had called him to let him know Haas had visited the Center and been given a full tour.

Once the kids left at ten PM, the celebration cranked up into full gear. As he loped back to the lounge to join the others after locking up, Blair thought how good it felt to have all his friends there - how different it was from the previous evenings when he'd been alone and more than a little scared each time he locked the door.

"Tell us exactly what went down," Joel called as Brown and Rafe popped corks and filled glasses.

"Yeah, I'm looking forward to hearing that myself," Simon chimed in with a wide smile.

Obligingly, Blair recounted his tale, with eager input from both Megan and Jim who crowed over how he'd had Haas on the run. When he was finished, he blushed as they all cheered wildly and gave him a standing ovation.

When they'd all settled down and he could be heard, Simon pulled a slim black folder from his pocket and flipped it open to reveal a gold detective's shield. Holding it up, he called to Blair, "If I offer this again, will you accept this time?"

"Well, you didn't actually offer it last time," Blair teased, and the whole group boo'ed cheerfully. Laughing, he shook his head. "Honestly? Probably. Because I really do want to go back to working with Jim, and I really do think the work you all do is tremendously important. But I'd like to pursue other possibilities, like maybe being a consultant rather than a full-fledged cop. I'll take the training, no question - but I'd rather not have to be bound by all the regulations."

Simon snorted. "Trust you to want to get around the rules, Sandburg," he drawled. "But, okay, I'll explore the possibilities."

Orvelle was sitting quietly in a corner, watching the festivities and he'd evidently been as pleased as all the others about the turn of events that would clear Blair's good name - but now he looked pensive and a small frown puckered his brow. Catching his expression, understanding it, Blair stated, "There's no big rush, Simon. I've made a commitment to this job for six months. I intend to keep my word. Orvelle - you believed in me when not a lot of people did. I'll always be grateful for that."

Shrugging, the big coach shook his head. "You don't owe me a thing, Munchkin," he avowed with a smile and sly look as if he knew full well the pet name would vastly amuse the others, who burst into exuberant laughter.

Blair scowled, even as he playfully shook a finger at Orvelle. "I promise you, I will get you for that, man!"

Laughing, Orvelle waved off the threat. "Seriously, I'm not going to hold you to your commitment. But I would appreciate it if you'd stay on until I can get a replacement. You've done great work here in the past week and I don't want to lose the momentum. And, hey," he added, with a glance at Jim, "it's great advertising to have a bona fide hero running the place."

Blair blushed again and ducked his head at the reminder of what he and the others had all heard the kids repeating excitedly all evening long. "Well," he demurred, "hero is over-stretching it just a bit. But I'll certainly stay until we find a new director."

"And we'll all help with the search," Simon added. "Once we spread the word, I'm sure we'll come up with lots of contenders for the job."

"Ah, but will they all be heroes?" Orvelle teased.

"Not like the one you've got now, sorry," Jim intoned with a proud smile. "They broke the mold when they made this guy."

"Probably a good thing," Blair retorted, but he smiled broadly in return as he held his friend's affectionate gaze.

**

Jim might have stayed after the others left, but it was late when the party finally broke up, and Joel was insistent about driving him and Simon home. So he gave Blair a swift, hard, sideways hug as he said fondly, "I'll see you tomorrow, Chief."

"Tomorrow," Blair agreed blearily as he covered a yawn. The champagne had left him feeling more than a bit woozy. "Saturday. No school. 'S gonna be so busy here all day, man."

He walked them outside, merrily waved them off and then, without even glancing at the lurking Flames, he went back inside and locked up. Deciding he was definitely tipsy, he was careful on the stairs. But he was too exhilarated by the unbelievable turn of events to worry about being drunk. Crashing onto his bed, his last fleeting thoughts were that he'd be going back home soon. And he'd get to work with Jim again.

Smiling blissfully, he figured life just didn't get better than that.

**

The earth-shattering deep blast of the buzzer from the front door shocked him into sudden, breathless wakefulness. "Oh, God," he moaned at the fierce pounding in his head that the riotous noise set off. "Too much champagne," he muttered as he struggled upright and wondered what the hell time it was.

Fumbling for the lamp to turn on the light, dizzy and disoriented, it took him a minute to realize that he'd never undressed and didn't have to find his jeans. Whoever was leaning on that damned buzzer wasn't giving it a rest and he winced, holding his head as he stumbled down the steps as fast as he could, given how truly rotten he felt.

"I'm coming!" he shouted, hoping they'd stop the infernal racket, but he cringed at the loud, rough sound of his voice.

Finally, he made it down the steps, released the security system, and unbolted the door, only belatedly thinking as he swung it open that he probably should have checked to see who was out there. Fear flashed, sobering him quickly, and then relief hit, leaving him queasy, when he saw it wasn't a bunch of gang members. It was only one of the dropouts who showed up every afternoon to hang around. Squinting into the darkness at the kid who was just beyond the light from the hall spilling onto the street, he yelled irritably, "I'm here, already, I'm here," to get the thin kid to stop leaning his whole body on the buzzer.

"What's wrong?" he asked with growing concern when the guy didn't respond but only kept leaning on the damned noisemaker. What was the kid's name? Alan? No, Andy. His nose wrinkling at the smell of vomit, his alarm grew as he realized Andy was really sick. Reaching out, he gripped the kid's arm and then had to shift quickly to catch the youth as he began to crumple. "Easy, man," he called as he got his arms around Andy and pulled him inside, under the stark light of the entry hall.

He carefully stretched Andy out on the floor and, trying not to gag at the stench of the vomit that coated the kid's filthy shirt, knelt beside him. The teenager's skin was grey, cold and sweaty, and his breathing was both labored and frighteningly slow. Calling out his name, Blair checked Andy's pulse and was even more alarmed by its faint, fluttery irregularity. When he checked the pupils, he found them widely dilated.

"Shit, you're really stoned," he muttered and eased the kid onto his side, in case he vomited again.

Scrambling to his feet, he raced into the office and punched in 911. Giving the address, he added urgently, "I've got a kid here who looks like he's dying from an overdose. Please, please hurry!"

He ran back to Andy, dropping down beside him. Pulling off his flannel shirt, he covered the kid to try to keep him warm. And then he drew the youth into his arms. "C'mon, Andy," he called. "Don't do this, man. Keep breathing, okay? Just keep breathing. Help is on the way."

In moments, he heard sirens and he vaguely thought the response was faster than seemed possible, but he was infinitely relieved. Flashing lights pulsed in the street and doors slammed, and then cops - weapons drawn - were racing in the door. "Where's the ambulance?" he asked in confusion, not even really registering the guns as he looked past them anxiously.

"What ambulance?" one of the uniforms demanded.

"I just called an ambulance," he replied, thinking they were idiots. "This kid is in really bad shape."

Andy convulsed in his arms and his breath rattled horribly … and then he went absolutely still.

"Oh, God," Blair gasped. "He's dying!" Swiftly, he laid Andy down and was about to start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, only to be roughly pulled away by two of the cops. "What are you doing?!" he shouted, struggling. "We gotta help him!" A cop slugged him and he roared with rage, kicking back and fighting to get free. He was punched again, harder than the first time, leaving him reeling.

"Just settle down, Sandburg," one of the cops restraining him ordered, twisting his arm behind his back so hard Blair thought his shoulder might dislocate. His world spun and he nearly passed out, barely hearing someone say, "We'll take care of the kid."

Blinking furiously, desperate to stay alert, he dragged in air and looked around wildly. When he saw one of the uniforms begin resuscitation measures and understood they really were going to help, he sagged in the hard grip of the cops holding him. Looking with muddled confusion at the hostile men surrounding him, he wondered why they had bashed him around and were glowering at him. What the hell was going on? None of it made any sense. "I don't understand," he muttered, shaking his head.

"Search the place," one of the cops holding him ordered others. "Vice is on their way."

"Vice?" Blair exclaimed, but nobody answered him; nobody explained anything. Giving up, figuring answers could wait, he returned his attention to the efforts being made to save Andy's life.

"He reeks of alcohol," one of the cops sneered disgustedly. "God, what a creep. Lies about Ellison, commits fraud when he's supposed to be a teacher, and now he's passing himself off as some kind of social worker when he's really pushing drugs on them."

Blair's eyes widened as it sank in that the cop was talking about him. "No, wait, you're wrong!" he protested, appalled anyone would think he'd hurt anyone, let alone kids.

But the words were scarcely out of his mouth, when one of the cops furiously slammed in close to drive a fist into Blair's gut. "Shut the hell up!" he snarled.

Choking, gasping for breath, hanging between the two behemoths holding him up, Blair began to wonder if he was caught in some kind of horrible nightmare. Nothing made any sense. God. He hoped it was a nightmare. Andy still wasn't breathing.

The ambulance finally arrived and, right behind it, two detectives from Vice stormed inside, adding to the confusion. The paramedics started working on Andy while Blair panted anxiously. At first, the punches hadn't really registered, but pain was starting to blast through his face and his diaphragm was spasming, making it agonizing to breathe. But he shoved the pain away and watched what was happening with growing horror.

They intubated the kid and started bagging him, but one EMT checked Andy's throat for a pulse, and looked up at the other who was doing cardiac massage. Shaking his head, he reported hollowly, "He's gone." Then, glancing up at the cops standing around, he said, "This one's for the M.E. He was gone before we got here."

"Ah, no," Blair gasped, nausea spiking in his gut.

A cop called from behind him, "Found something back in the storage room off the gym. Looks like pure smack. And there was quite a party here earlier - lots of glasses stinking of alcohol and a bunch of empty champagne and beer bottles."

One of the Vice detectives took off to check and bag the evidence, while the other, one of the guys Blair had never gotten along with, snarled, "Looks like your luck finally ran out, Sandburg. We got a tip that you've been serving booze to minors and selling illegal drugs. You're goin' down on this one. About damned time."

"I did not do this!" Blair insisted grimly. "There were at least a hundred kids and adults in here tonight. Anyone could have planted that stuff. Who called you anyway? These cops didn't even know an ambulance was on its way when they first got here." But it was all too clear that nobody was listening to him. Nobody believed him.

The other Vice cop came back, holding a large plastic sack filled with white powder in his hand. "Book him," he ordered. "And bag the glasses and bottles in the lounge. The prints'll probably tie him to the victim and give us leads on other kids that were here."

"The whole Major Crime gang was here after the Center closed for the night. It's their prints on those glasses!" Blair shouted, but the men around him just rolled their eyes, not believing a word he had to say.

"Yeah, like anybody in MCU'd give you the time of day," somebody muttered belligerently.

Scarcely able to believe what was happening, Blair closed his eyes and forced back the bile that burned in his throat. One cop read him his rights, while another roughly cuffed his wrists behind his back.

He was dragged outside to a patrol car and shoved inside. Struggling to regain some measure of calm, he told himself he'd get a phone call. Jim would sort this out - but, he slumped in misery.

Nobody could help Andy.

All he could think about was that poor, pathetic kid, lying dead of an overdose on the grungy tile floor of the hall. And then it hit him. The cops showing up before they knew he'd called for help; the anonymous call to Vice; the drugs stashed in the storage room.

Andy hadn't simply died under unfortunate circumstances. He'd been murdered!

Deliberately, cold-bloodedly murdered - to set him up!

Doubling over, battling the urge to retch, he moaned in horror and helpless sorrow. Oh, God, if the Flames wanted to be rid of him so bad, why hadn't they just killed him? Why pick on some unhappy, lost kid who was just doing his best to survive?

That poor kid. That poor, poor, innocent kid.

When they got him downtown, they shoved him inside and someone tripped him, so he went flying, the breath knocked out of him when he hit the floor hard. They dragged him to his feet and manhandled him into Booking. His prints were taken, his photos, and he was given a breathalyzer test before they started to haul him toward an interrogation room.

But he dug in his heels. "I've got a right to make a phone call," he loudly insisted. "And I've got nothing to say to you until I've got representation here, so you might as well not waste your time badgering me in interrogation."

Disgusted, they stood him in front of the phone hanging on the wall of the hall and he was handed a quarter. After he punched in the number, he stood with his head hanging, one hand tentatively checking out the damage to his face as he waited for an answer. As soon as he heard Jim's voice, he blurted, "Jim, I've been arrested by Vice for murder and drug trafficking. One of the dropouts, Andy - he OD'd; died in my arms. The cops found what looks like a kilo of heroin in the storage room. Get the security tapes, okay? Everything that went down'll be on them. Better call Orvelle. Let him know what happened. And, please, man, get me outta here."

When he hung up, he was taken to Holding and put in a stinking cell already overcrowded with other desperate and drunken men who had been arrested that night. Doing his best to ignore them and their lewd, threatening comments, he moved to a corner where a wall met the steel bars and sank down onto the filthy floor. Wrapping his arms around his sore gut, he bent his head to his knees and settled in to wait.

**

Livid with fury, Jim stormed off the elevator outside Vice. Beside him, Taggart was no less irate. As they hastened down the hall, they heard the Vice cops crowing about how they'd finally stuck it to that fag, Sandburg, and he was going to fry. But the boasting voices died when they burst into the Operations Room.

"You guys are idiots!" Joel snapped coldly. Holding up a clear bag with three videotapes inside, he shook it at them. "And you're gonna be charged with assault and false arrest before I'm done here tonight."

"Back off, Captain," one of them sneered. "We got him cold. Still holding the dead body, drugs in the back, evidence of serving alcohol to minors. Looked like Sandburg had quite a party over at the Center earlier tonight."

"That so?" Joel slammed back. "You're gonna feel mighty stupid when you find the prints of the members of MCU on those glasses, just like Sandburg told you. If you'd bothered to check these security tapes, you'd see that a masked Flames' gang member pushed that kid, Andy, up against the door buzzer. And you'd also have been able to spot the kid that planted the stuff in the supply room. On top of all that, these tapes show officers of the law manhandling and beating an innocent civilian who had been trying to help the poor kid that died tonight. The smartest thing you could do right now is resign before you get fired."

Jim growled, dangerously cold, "The Flames set Sandburg up. If you didn't have your heads stuck up your asses, and weren't so set on punishing Sandburg when you haven't got a fucking clue about the facts, you might've noticed that the anonymous tip was a little too convenient and you'd've conducted an investigation and not a witchhunt. I want him out of that cell NOW!"

One of the Vice detectives reached for the bag of tapes, but Joel pulled it away. "Nuh uh," he grunted. "MCU is taking over this case. You morons are on report." Eying them contemptuously, he ordered, "Like the man said - get Sandburg out of that cell now."

"You don't have any right to barge in here -" the detective blustered.

"Don't push it," Joel cautioned. "You're already in a world of trouble. The Chief is probably talking to your Captain as we speak. Don't make it worse, now that you know the facts."

Cowed, apparently realizing just how badly they'd screwed up that night, the arresting detective nodded mutely and led them back toward the elevator. In the car on the way down, Joel drawled, "You and your pals might want to make a point of watching the Haas Report, 'Telling It Like It Is', this weekend, to see how wrong you've been about damned near everything when it comes to Sandburg."

The detective flicked him a sideways look, but evidently decided that silence was his best bet.

They emerged on the ground floor and went around back to the restricted entry that led to Booking and the holding cells beyond. While the Vice detective cleared the paperwork for Sandburg's release, Joel said to Jim, "Don't let what we overheard upstairs get you down, okay? Most of us aren't homophobic jerks like these guys."

Jim had been focusing on trying to hear Blair and he started at Joel's words. Frowning, he replied, "Sandburg isn't gay, Joel. As far as I know, he's not even bisexual."

Taggart huffed a small laugh. "You know, I bet he'd say the same thing about you."

Disconcerted and thoroughly confused, irritated by the distraction when he just wanted to get to Blair, Jim snapped, "What's that supposed to mean?"

Rolling his eyes, Joel replied, "When all this shit with the Flames is sorted out, get yourself some popcorn sometime and settle down to watch those security tapes with Blair, the shots that focus on the two of you together. Take a good long gander at how you look at each other, Jim. Maybe you'll see what the rest of us have seen for quite some time now."

Before Jim could respond, Joel nudged him forward toward the cells behind the staff sergeant who was on his way to set Blair free. Shrugging off Taggart's confusing comments, Jim hastened past the heavy, reinforced door and down the long, dismal corridor of cells to the main holding tank. His chest felt tight with anxiety and he wished to hell they could have come straight here rather than have to put the pieces together to damn well prove Blair was being framed. Two hours could be a long time in Holding.

When he saw his friend huddled miserably in the corner, Jim's throat tightened and, once again, he had to put a lock on his rage toward those who had done this. "Sandburg," he called, just loud enough to be heard.

Blair's head jerked up and a relieved, lopsided smile lit his bruised and battered face. His lip was swollen on one side and a bruise was darkening on his jaw. Another blackened his right eye. He pushed himself up with alacrity, but Jim heard the soft hiss and saw him lift an arm unconsciously to support his gut. And he limped as he shifted past other prisoners to the now open cell door.

"Man, I'm so glad to see you. And you, too, Joel. I'm sorry to drag you out in the middle of the night but those clowns were determined not to listen to anything I said."

"Yeah, we saw that on the tape, Chief," Jim told him grimly. "You okay?"

"Sure, just bruised is all," Blair reassured him but then his expression fell. "Andy wasn't so lucky."

Nodding, Jim looped an arm around his shoulders and guided him back along the hall, Joel trailing behind them.

"The tapes give any clue as to who did it, stashed the stuff, I mean?" Blair asked.

Again Jim nodded and Joel spoke up. "Yeah. We spotted a kid carrying a backpack into and out of the storage room."

"He was one of the ones that hassled you the other day," Jim added and shrugged. "Last evening, he came into the Center without his colors. There were so many kids there last night that I didn't spot him."

"He probably did his best to avoid both of us," Blair sighed as he collected his possessions at the counter.

"We've got an APB out on him," Joel said. "Only a matter of time till somebody spots him and brings him in. The masked guy, though, that leaned - Andy, was it? - against the door buzzer won't be as easy to catch. No way to tell who he was, not for sure. Unless you spotted something, Jim?"

"No, I didn't," Jim replied as they got into the elevator to head to the basement. Recalling the beating he'd witnessed on the security tapes, his gaze flickered over Blair, assessing the darkening bruises and shocky pallor, and the way his friend held a protective arm across his body. He was holding up despite how battered he looked … but nothing on the tapes explained the limp.

"I'm okay," Blair muttered.

"Uh huh. Sure you are," he grunted, his lips thinning as he looked away. But he kept his arm around Blair's shoulders. "What's wrong with your leg?"

"I, uh, went for a header on the way into the station."

"Someone tripped you?" Jim demanded, exchanging an irate look with Joel.

"Yeah," he sighed and closed his eyes as he leaned into Jim's support.

When they reached the parking garage, Joel waved them toward his sedan. "C'mon, let's get you boys home. You both look like you're about to keel right over."

"Joel, could you drop me back at the Center?" Blair asked as he opened the door into the backseat. When both older men looked at him askance, he waved at his now very grubby T-shirt. "All my clothes are there."

"Forget it. We're going home. Won't be the first time you wore one of my shirts," Jim grated as he peeled off his jacket and tossed it to Blair. "They're still cleaning up the crime scene, so you couldn't get back in until later today, anyway."

"Oh, okay," Blair allowed as he pulled on the warm jacket and slid into the car. Settling back against the seat, he tried hard not to show how relieved he was not to be going straight back to Shaunnessey Street. He wasn't at all sure how he was going to be able to sleep there again. Taking a slow breath and leaning his head back, closing his eyes, he told himself his fear was just the shock of everything. Once he calmed down and the pain subsided, he'd be all right.

Watching the byplay, listening as he got in behind the wheel, Joel chuckled to himself and shook his head as he wondered how two such exceptionally perceptive individuals could be as blind as bats.

Distracted by the low chuckle, Jim shifted his concerned attention away from Blair just enough to irritably wonder what Joel found so damned funny. "What about laying charges on those jerks?" he demanded.

Joel glanced into the mirror and saw Blair gaping at them. "Don't you start, Blair. Those guys deserve to be reported for what they did to you. Nobody beats on a civilian like they did you without answering for it, and you know it." Glancing at Jim, he went on, "I'll be following up with IA after I drop you guys off. The photos from Booking will show the facial bruises real well, and the security tapes tell the story. Blair, I'm gonna want a full statement later - and don't be forgetting the details of that tumble you took. They won't get off with a slap on the wrist, I promise you that."

**

As soon as they were inside the loft, Jim turned Blair and examined his face. Used to his friend's need to reassure himself, Blair did his best not to wince at the gentle touch and didn't flinch when Jim abruptly lifted the front of his shirt to check his ribs and then bent to examine his leg.

"I'm okay," he repeated, "at least physically." Looking away from Jim's intent gaze, he murmured, "They killed that kid. To frame me. Just … just killed him 'cause he was handy; like he was disposable." His voice caught and he shook his head.

"He was a junky, Chief. Probably got his stuff from the same guy who gave him bad shit last night," Jim replied evenly as he got to his feet. "He was hanging around, casing the Center, to see what he could rip off to support his habit. You know that as well as I do."

"Yeah, probably," Blair nodded. "But he didn't deserve to die."

"No," Jim agreed. "But you didn't kill him. It's not your fault."

"I know." Anger he was barely controlling flared in his eyes and he growled, "I want them, man. I want to nail them for this. I will not let them win."

"Don't let it get personal," Jim cautioned. "You know better."

Blair gave a short, sharp nod. "Yeah, whatever it takes, right? Lock the emotions down," he said bitterly. Flicking a hard glance at Jim, he added, "Like you do. Hard to strike a balance, though, huh? Hard to only hold the bad stuff, the inconvenient stuff, inside and still know how to let out the rest." He searched Jim's face but Jim couldn't hold his gaze. Sighing, his shoulders sagged and he wearily ran his fingers through his tangled hair. "It's hard, but I've been learning, you know?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah, I know," he said quietly, sounding regretful. He blew a long breath and then said more briskly, "You've had a hell of a night, and you need to crash."

With a wry half-smile, and a glance at Jim's leg, Blair replied, "I need a shower. Mind if I go grab some of your sweats?"

"No," Jim said. "I've, uh, I've been sleeping down here this week. Saves wear and tear goin' up and down the stairs two or three times a day. If it's okay with you, you can take my bed."

"Oh, hey, I can crash on the couch."

"Sandburg, you look like hell. I don't think you've had a decent night's sleep since you moved into that place. Do us both a favor and just take the bed."

Lifting his hands in surrender, Blair laughed softly as he turned away to trudge up the steps. "Okay, you win. I'm too tired to argue about it."

Half an hour later, he was sprawled in Jim's bed. Closing his eyes, he thought about how often he'd imagined himself there - but he'd never imagined that he'd be there alone. He wanted to think that Jim had chosen to sleep in his room for the past week in order to be close to him, to his scent, but he knew how stupid it was to torment himself with wild hopes and impossible dreams. Tackling the steps more than once a day to get fresh clothing was just too much for Jim's leg. That was all. Simple as that. Sighing, he curled onto his side and buried his face in Jim's pillow.

Before he was finally able to relax into sleep, he wondered if Jim would ever know how very good he'd gotten at hiding his feelings. Or at least the ones he didn't dare ever reveal.

**

Blair was stiff and sore when he when he woke hours later. His face ached and his gut still felt tender. One eye was so swollen that he could barely see out of it. Stifling a groan, he forced himself up and slowly made the bed. Avoiding the mirrors, not particularly wanting to see the livid bruises, he limped across the floor to rifle through Jim's closet and dresser, and got dressed. They were pretty much of a size in shoulders and waist, but he had to roll up the cuffs of the jeans and shove up the sleeves of the sweatshirt. Nothing like the beaten-up-waif-look to inspire confidence and influence others, he thought with resigned amusement. When he heard Jim moving around downstairs, he asked, "You want me to bring a change of clothes down for you? Save you a trip?"

"Yeah, thanks," Jim called back.

He grabbed what was needed and headed downstairs to his bedroom. Handing over the clothing, he said, "I've got to call Orvelle. And, um, I'll need to borrow the keys I gave you to get back inside. Mine are in the office."

Jim frowned as he pulled on his jeans. Eying Blair's spectacular bruises, he observed dryly, "You look like you went one too many rounds with Rocky, Chief. Maybe you should just take it easy today."

"I'm fine," Blair returned, though he fingered his jaw delicately.

"I'm not sure you -"

"I'm going back there," he cut in with flat determination. "They aren't going to drive me off."

Though he didn't look happy about it, Jim shrugged and let it go. He pulled a sweatshirt over his head and waved Blair toward the kitchen. "I'll make coffee and rustle up some food while you check in."

Ten minutes later, Blair hung up the phone just as Jim was dishing up scrambled eggs. He poured the coffee and buttered the toast, and they sat down to eat. After his first bite, trying not to wince when he chewed, Blair decided toast wasn't the best idea and concentrated on the soft eggs. Jim flicked him an assessing look but didn't say anything, for which Blair was grateful. He felt like hell, but he'd be damned if he'd let the Flames think they'd won.

"Well, as you heard, the cops have finished with the place and I can get back in," he said.

Jim lifted his mug and sipped. Setting it down, he replied matter-of-factly, "I'm going with you. I'll sleep over there tonight."

Blair snorted. But at the aggrieved expression on his friend's face, he cajoled, "Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the thought. But I'm a little old to need a baby-sitter. It could be weeks before Orvelle finds a replacement for me, and you can't be there all the time. It's my job, Jim. I have to handle this."

"You're handling it just fine, Sandburg," Jim observed mildly. "Doesn't change the fact that I'm going to sleep there tonight, and we'll see how it goes after that. I'm not convinced that anybody needs to be there all night, every night. The neighborhood survived before you moved in last week and they'll survive if you move out."

When Blair opened his mouth to argue, Jim lifted a palm to stop him. "Don't get all stubborn on me. The Flames have declared war. We've had one murder and that's already one too many. I know you're scared to be there on your own - you'd be stupid not to be, and you're not a stupid man. You don't carry, Chief. You've got no defense if they come after you. You do your thing, serve the community. And I'll do mine."

"Jim, that place is a fortress when it's all locked up, and the security system sends an alert straight to the PD if anyone tries to break in. Seriously, man, I'm fine there alone at night. So, how about a compromise, because I can't say that I'm not nervous about what they might pull when the place is open for business," he admitted. "Come back with me and stay until I lock up, just like you've done all week. And, at least as long as you're on leave, be back when I open up in the morning. You're not made of iron, Jim. You need your rest, too, if that leg is going to heal right. And, besides," he added with a small grin, "we both know Joel'll have insisted on either frequent patrols or a watch overnight, and he's got the authority to do it because the case is now with Major Crime. He's not going to risk more trouble, either, right?"

When Jim hesitated, he pushed softly, "If I'm gonna be your full partner soon, you can't keep seeing me as the civilian observer you have to protect. You've got to trust my judgment and … and let me handle things." He paused. "If it makes you feel better, you can lend me your spare piece when you leave at night. I'll be carrying my own weapon soon; might as well get used to it."

The muscle in Jim's jaw throbbed as he grappled with his desire to protect and Blair's need to stand on his own. Abruptly, he pushed his half-eaten meal away. "Fine. We'll do it your way." Drilling Blair with his hard gaze, his tone was uncompromising as he stipulated, "But you're going to talk to Orvelle about changing the arrangements, at least until we neutralize the current threat."

"Deal," Blair agreed. "The Jags're playing out of town tonight but he said he'd come in tomorrow. I'll talk to him then."

Jim's gaze flicked over his face and it was clear he still wasn't comfortable, but he nodded. Picking up his plate, he limped into the kitchen to wash up. Before they left for the Center, he pulled out his ankle holster and spare weapon and handed them to Blair, who soberly strapped them on.

**

When they arrived by cab at the Center, they found a number of their regulars loitering around the entrance, including half the basketball players and Angie, the young adolescent and her friends who Jim had talked with the afternoon before.

"Hey!" Blair called as he stepped out on the sidewalk, and smiles lit the kids' faces.

"Oh, you're okay," Angie called, anxiously eying the bruises on his face. "We were worried about you when we heard there was a murder here last night."

"Yeah, and we were scared the Center might be closing," one of the basketball players added, his voice cracking between the baritone he was growing into and his younger self's light tenor.

"I'm fine, thanks, and as soon as I unlock the door, we're open for business," Blair assured them, touched by their concern and delighted by their continuing interest in participating in activities, despite the ugliness of what had happened.

While Blair chatted with the youngsters and drew them toward the entrance, Jim paid off the cabbie and glanced around the street. His gaze narrowed when he spotted several members of the Flames watching the Center and looking none too happy to see Blair opening it up again. Chewing on his lip thoughtfully, he followed Blair and the kids inside.

Everyone paused in awkward silence when they saw the stark outline on the floor where Andy had died. "It's okay," Blair said in a quiet voice, reaching out to lightly grip Angie's shoulder as he looked around at all of them. "I know it's tough to lose somebody you knew, especially suddenly and, well, violently."

"Andy was pretty screwed up," one of the players mumbled, as if he wasn't sure he should say anything bad about someone who was dead. The other kids nodded in agreement and he relaxed a little. "An' he's not the first guy from 'round here who, well, who's OD'd or got hisself whacked."

Blair and Jim exchanged glances, and Blair could see his friend regretted as much as he did that kids had to grow up with such grim realities. But standing around the outline on the floor wasn't helping anything. To distract the kids, Blair said, "Okay, tell you what. Why don't you guys go get busy in the gym or the games room and I'll clean this up. If any of you want to talk about what happened or about other stuff that's happened around here, we can do that when I'm done."

"Sounds good, Munchkin," one of the tall, gangly players agreed, and gave him an impish grin.

"You gonna play with us again, Detective Jim?" Angie asked hopefully.

"Absolutely," Jim assured her with a warm smile. "Come on, let's see what other games are on the shelves in there."

Blair watched his friend limp down the hall, surrounded by chattering kids who clearly idolized him, and smiled fondly. Jim was really good with them; he made them feel safe. And Blair thought the kids were good for him, too. Jim didn't get much chance to just play and laugh on a daily basis.

**

The Center gradually filled with kids during the rest of the afternoon, and even more showed up over the evening. Joel dropped in, both to volunteer for a couple hours and to bring Jim and Blair up to date on the case. They were still trying to track down the gang member from the security tape but the Flames were on notice that the cops were now seriously involved. He hoped that might cool off their aggression, at least for a while.

The Center closed at ten PM. Instead of heading out at the same time, Jim asked, "You got a beer up in your fridge?"

"Sure, man," Blair affirmed. "I'll go get a couple."

"Nah, I think my leg is good enough to try the stairs tonight. I'd like to see the place," Jim replied.

"Okay, come on up."

Jim took it slow. He found the continuing stiffness and ache an irritant, but felt he'd improved a lot since he'd gotten out of the hospital. Upstairs, he looked around with interest, approving the simplicity and casual comfort of the furnishings. Blair brought two beers into the living room, waving Jim to a chair while he settled on the couch.

"The kids around here are sure resilient," Blair observed. "Gotta be rough, growing up in a tough neighborhood like this one."

"Yeah," Jim agreed absently as he grappled with laying out his reasons for not heading home as usual.

Blair studied him as they sat in comfortable silence, sipping on their beers, and then said, "You said the other day there was more stuff you wanted to talk about, but everything's been so hectic since …."

Looking up at him, his expression giving nothing away, Jim nodded slowly. "Yeah, there is," he agreed, but he hesitated and his gaze fell. "It's late, and all that can wait."

Shifting in his chair, he again met Blair's eyes. "There's something else. Earlier today, you made the point that we're going to be partners and that, uh, I need to back off, be less … protective. But you're the one who's always making the point that I shouldn't be racing off to do stuff on my own. That partners back each other up. And you're right. That's what being partners means. So … so I'm gonna renege on our deal. I'm staying here tonight; make sure you've got backup if you need it."

Before Blair could object, he hurried on. "This isn't about not trusting you or thinking you can't handle yourself. I saw the Flames watching the place when we arrived. Joel says he hopes they'll cool their jets, but I don't think that's likely to happen. If anything, opening the place back up today will only get their goat. So I'm going to stay tonight, and after you talk to Orvelle tomorrow, we'll see where we go from there."

Blair's eyes had narrowed and his jaw had set stubbornly as he listened. He sat for a long moment, not speaking. But then he looked away, his gaze roaming the small apartment, and his expression was thoughtful. "Okay," he finally replied. "Guess I'm not used to the idea of you backing me up, but yeah, yeah, you're right. And if you're staying, I won't be needing this," he went on as he bent to take off the ankle holster and then handed it and the weapon it contained to Jim. Meeting Jim's gaze, a smile flickering around the corners of his mouth, he added, "You take the bed - and no arguments about that. I'll be more comfortable out here on the couch than you would be."

"Works for me," Jim agreed as he took his spare weapon, relieved to get such an easy agreement. Another thought flashed through his mind and he asked, "Any chance you got some popcorn?"

"Popcorn?" Blair echoed, blinking in confusion at the sudden change of subject. "Um, no, why? You want something to eat?"

"No, no it was just something Joel said. Nevermind, it's not important," Jim demurred. Glancing at his watch, he said as he got up, "It really is late and we need to be up early, right? Place opens officially at what? Nine AM?"

"Yeah," Blair replied as he stood and took Jim's empty bottle. "There're clean towels in the cupboard in the bathroom. Make yourself at home, man."

**

Later, after Jim was settled in his bed, Blair made up his temporary nest on the couch, turned off the lights and crawled under the blankets. Curling on his side, bunching up his pillow, he thought about how really aggravating it was getting to be to have Jim Ellison in his bed … and not to be there with him. But warmth filled him and he smiled when he recalled Jim's words about partnership and backing him up, and of the implicit message of equality that Jim had conveyed. It wasn't just all about him backing Jim up anymore and, somehow, that made him feel really good. Closing his eyes, he wondered what it was that Jim still wanted to talk about, and why it was taking him so long to get around to whatever it was. His smile widened as he told himself that it was just really good that Jim was finally, finally opening up without having to be cajoled and prodded into it.

And he was here, with him. Had been with him pretty much since Jim had gotten out of the hospital. Had been showing, day by day, that he wanted Blair in his life.

That was a whole lot more than Blair had had a week before. When he thought about how he'd been so mesmerized by the water at the harbor just before Orvelle had called, he shivered. Life was still a rollercoaster ride but at least, instead of feeling as if he was hurling into an abyss, he knew with certainty that he was back on the right track. In less than six months, he'd be home and working as Jim's permanent partner - something he'd thought impossible a week ago, and everything he so much wanted.

**

For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Jim lay on a bed belonging to his roommate and listened to that roommate fall asleep. With a poignant, bittersweet joy, he was glad to be so close again, but wished he was closer still. Twice that evening he'd nearly confessed how he felt: when Blair had offered him the opening and later, when he'd asked about the popcorn. He'd figured out that Joel was trying to give him a message and, since he knew very well how he felt about Blair, he wondered if Joel saw something of the same in Blair for him. But he'd hesitated. And he wasn't sure why. Just, the kid had been through so much that day and Blair was probably going to move back home after that night. They had lots of time to cross those bridges.

He sure hoped Blair would want to cross that particular bridge. He knew, with no doubt, that Blair loved him and had loved him for a long time, as a friend, as a brother. Over the years, they'd become one another's family, closer than they were to their blood kin. Blair had sacrificed his past in that press conference to give them a future and Blair had said he … that he hadn't ever wanted to leave the loft. But was that friendship talking? How could he tell if Blair was in love with him?

God help him, for months he'd even used his senses to try to figure out if Blair was aroused by him. But it was damned hard to tell. Blair was in the prime of his sexual life and he was half-aroused most of the time; in the mornings almost always when he woke, often during the night as he dreamed, and Jim got whiffs when they were out on the street or in the office - but some woman might have captured his partner's attention or thoughts.

And he'd never smelled another man on Blair, not once in all their years together. So, he didn't know, couldn't be sure. In the absence of certainty, he only had the courage to reveal his own desire because Blair was so accepting, so open to nearly everything and everyone, so nonjudgmental. If Blair didn't return his feelings, he wouldn't get all freaked out. He might feel sorry that he couldn't reciprocate, and Jim dreaded seeing that compassion in his eyes, that awareness that his decision would bring Jim grief, but Blair wouldn't hate him or reject him as a friend.

Jim's greatest fear, worse than seeing compassion or even pity in Blair's eyes, was that the kid was so giving, so generous, especially toward him, that Blair might agree to a relationship simply to please him. Blair … Blair might try to give him pleasure even if it wasn't what Blair desired. Jim didn't want that. He wanted it all or, or he'd just have to live with what they had: friendship, an affinity so powerful that it defied explanation or definition. He'd just have to hope that someone didn't come along someday who would offer Blair more and entice him away.

Sighing, he let his worries and wishes drift because there was nothing he could do about them that night. The good news was that, after a week of uncertainty, of not knowing if or when Blair would really come back to him, of not having a clue as to how to overcome the barriers to them working together, things were going to be fine. Blair had fixed it all during the conversation with Haas the afternoon before.

What he could do was revel in the fact that he was surrounded by Blair, his scent, the sounds of his breathing and heartbeat as he lay in Blair's bed. Taking a deep breath, he allowed himself to simply go with his arousal, his hand straying to his warmth and his mind evocating visions of what might yet be. His breath shortened and he covered himself with the cloth he'd brought from the bathroom. He came hard in Blair's bed, with Blair's name on his lips.

You've got to tell him, he thought muzzily, as he drifted off. You've got to tell him soon.

**

Jim woke to the scent and sound of frying bacon. Stretching in the bed, he was pleased that his leg hardly ached at all. Enormously content to be beginning the day in Blair's company, he got up and pulled on his jeans. Wandering out to the kitchen, he found Blair, garbed in loose boxers and sleeveless T-shirt, leaning over the sink to fill the coffee carafe with water. Jim's mouth went dry at the sight of the taut lines of Blair's body, and his wild, uncombed and shower-damp hair. Fighting the tightness in his chest, he dragged in a deep breath to steady himself, and pasted a smile on his face as he said, "Good morning. Smells good."

Blair looked over his shoulder to return the smile and the greeting as he went on filling the coffee machine before moving to the refrigerator to pull out a carton of eggs. The domesticity, the comfort Blair had in his presence, stirred him and filled him with gratitude. "Huh?" he asked, realizing Blair had said something and he'd missed it.

"Do you want to grab a shower while I scramble the eggs? There's time."

"Uh, yeah, sure. Good idea," he muttered, though he'd just as soon stand there and drink in the sight of his partner. Blair gave him a bemused look, and Jim figured his friend thought his muddled manner was only because he was still half asleep. Chagrined, forcing himself to turn away, Jim headed into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. A cold shower was probably a really good idea.

By the time he'd showered and pulled his clothes on, Blair had dressed and was putting the food on the table. The simple act of sitting down to eat breakfast together felt so right to him, so natural, he wondered how he could have taken such routine so much for granted for so long. Wondered how he couldn't have been conscious of the easy contentment he felt in Blair's company or realized sooner how bereft he'd be without the man in his life.

"Did Orvelle say when he'd be here today?" Jim asked as he eagerly dug in.

"Early this afternoon," Blair replied as he filled their glasses with the guava juice Jim liked. Even that struck Jim as perfect and, somehow, touching. Blair hadn't had any way of knowing Jim would ever be here for breakfast, but his favorite juice was on hand … just in case, maybe? Or because Blair had grown used to buying what he liked? As he bit into a piece of toast, Jim told himself with no little self-disparaging amusement that he had it bad. Real bad.

When they finished eating, he helped with the cleanup, and then they went downstairs. Blair continued past the office to the games room, and Jim wondered what he was doing. When his partner reappeared moments later with a paint can and brush in his hands, he remembered the routine.

"First duty of the morning," Blair said with a wry grin. "Paint over the stuff the Flames scrawl on the outside wall overnight."

"Right." Jim followed his friend to the door and, while Blair got to work, he leaned against the frame as he watched the street. It was quiet, with little traffic on an early Sunday morning, and no one in a rush to get anywhere. Some kids were playing on the sidewalk halfway down the block. A man sat on his front stoop, drinking coffee and reading his paper. He heard mothers in apartments over the storefronts calling kids to wake up and get dressed for church. The neighborhood was poor and it had its problems with lawlessness but, over the past week, getting to know the kids, he'd found a lot of good there. A lot of hope for the future. A lot of decency.

Watching Blair, he thought about how good his partner was with the kids. Blair obviously really enjoyed his job. Then he frowned, wondering if Blair would get as much pleasure out of being a cop or a consultant with the PD. Reflectively, he thought about how he, too, had enjoyed so much of the past week, spending time with the kids, doing a bit of coaching, a bit of encouraging along paths toward healthy life choices. He'd gotten a kick out of their laughter as they'd played games and teased one another - and him, the cheeky little brats. Crossing his arms, he found himself musing about how different a life it would be, working and building toward a better future rather than chasing down the criminals that darkened their world. Seeing kids smiling and not crying, alive and vibrant and not dead of ODs or violence.

Blair was nearly finished covering the last of the spray-painted curses and insults down near the end of the building. He lifted his eyes to again scan the street and realized that, for the first time, there wasn't a single gang member in sight. Stiffening, doubting that the rousting by cops searching for the kid who planted the drugs would be enough to scare them off, he wondered why none of them were hanging around. Frowning, Jim shook his head. The graffiti pretty much proved there'd been no overnight surveillance and the Flames were still watching closely enough to evade the increased patrols.

A souped-up old Ford mustang was cruising slowly down the street, and he caught a glimpse of red in the darkened interior. Instinctively, he reached for the weapon strapped to the small of his back, and was drawing it out when he saw the muzzle of an automatic weapon protrude from the passenger window.

"Chief!" he shouted with rough urgency. "DOWN!"

He was bringing his pistol up as the sound of racketing bullets ripped through the morning quiet, and then he was shooting. The spraying bullets abruptly stopped as the shooter jerked back and slumped on the seat, and the driver gunned the car, accelerating fast to get away.

Smoothly twisting his body to follow it, nearly oblivious to the dull protest from his leg, he shot out one of the tires. The speeding car swerved out of control and rolled before it crashed into a light pole. Watching closely, he pulled out his cell and called 911 for backup and an ambulance.

Flicking a glance at his partner, he was relieved to see Blair pushing himself up from the sidewalk. "You okay?" he demanded when he finished the call and shoved the phone back in his pocket, still watching the overturned car for signs of life. He focused his hearing, listening for heartbeats, and then holstered his pistol. Those two young gangsters wouldn't be bothering anyone again.

"Man, that was close," Blair gasped, still recovering from the burst of fear at Jim's shout and the sound of bullets whizzing too close. Grimacing, he rolled his shoulders against an ache in his back, figuring he'd pulled a muscle or two when he'd twisted and dived toward the pavement. "I never expected them to try anything on the street in broad daylight."

Coming to stand beside Jim, he looked over at the wrecked car. "Dead?" he asked softly when he saw Jim put his weapon away.

"Yeah," he replied, his expression grim as he gazed at the wreck. His nose twitched as he caught the scent of blood and he regarded the splatters on the shattered windshield balefully.

Blair coughed and his gasped, "What the …?" drew Jim's attention and he looked at Blair, saw him gaping at the splash of blood on his hand.

Alarm spiked and Jim reached out to grip Blair's shoulders, turning him around, and his eyes widened at the sight of the crimson stains spreading over his partner's shirt. "You've been shot - twice," he grated, feeling breathless.

"What? You're kidding." Blair twisted his head, trying to see over his shoulder. "But - it doesn't hurt," he protested in astonishment.

"Not yet. Just give it a few minutes and it'll hurt like hell," he said, pulling up Blair's shirt to check the wounds. Blood was streaming thickly down Blair's back. Endorphins and adrenaline were probably blocking his partner's perceptions, but the natural numbing wouldn't last for long. Blair coughed again, and his breathing seemed suddenly raspier. "You need to sit down," he urged and, his arm around Blair's shoulders, he helped him ease down to the sidewalk.

"How bad?" Blair asked, growing pale as shock set in.

"Bad enough," Jim replied tersely, ignoring his bad leg as he knelt on one knee to support Blair against his body. "Two bullets and one clipped a lung. Just take it easy, Chief. I've already called for an ambulance."

Blair's breathing hitched and he coughed again, a long, racking spasm that left him gasping with blood-speckled lips. Fear bloomed on his face and in his eyes as he twisted, trying to get away from erupting pain, and he bit off a low moan.

"Easy, Chief. Easy," Jim murmured as he wrapped one arm tightly around his partner, hugging him close, and wiped the blood from Blair's mouth. Shifting, he pressed his hand against Blair's back to apply pressure to the wound he figured was the worst, but he knew he wasn't doing much good. Blair's shirt was already sodden and sticky with blood.

People were appearing on the street, curious and frightened by the shooting. The young girl, Angie, ran up beside them. "Is Mister Sandburg okay?" she demanded anxiously.

"No, honey, he's hurt," Jim told her, amazed to hear himself sound so calm when he wanted to scream with fear and fury. "Listen, could you run inside and get me a couple towels from the shower room? Bring 'em back real fast?"

She was gone before he finished asking, racing past him into the Center.

"Jim, I don't feel so good," Blair wheezed, sounding scared.

"I know," he soothed as he tucked Blair's head under his chin. "Don't talk, okay? Just concentrate on breathing." Where the hell's the ambulance? Jim wondered frantically, as he listened with growing desperation to the hammering of Blair's heart and the worsening sounds of his damaged lung. "Angie!" he yelled. He had to try to stop the hemorrhaging.

She dashed out of the building, holding two thick, clean towels out to him. "Is this enough? I can bring more."

"No, this is good, thanks sweetheart," he murmured, forcing himself to act calmly as he took the linens. Easing Blair forward, he supported him against his chest as he pulled up Blair's shirt and pressed the thick towels against his back, hoping to clot the flow of blood. Cocking his head, he caught the faint keening wail of sirens in the distance. "Help's on the way, Chief. Be here soon, okay?"

Blair nodded slowly against his chest, and then another violent coughing spell took him, leaving him panting raggedly for breath.

"You're okay," Jim chanted, while he held the linens against the wounds. "You're okay. Just breathe slow and shallow."

"J-Jim?" Blair gasped, his voice frighteningly faint. "I, I … I feel like I'm falling. And 'm cold."

"Shh, I know. Don't try to talk. I've got you, Blair. You'll be okay, buddy. You'll be okay."

Blair would be all right. He had to be. Jim couldn't bear to believe otherwise. But he could hear Blair's heart beating harder and faster, skipping beats, and the thick, wet, wheezing of air in Blair's right lung was getting worse. Blair's arm snaked around his waist and he felt Blair grasp his shirt, holding on, holding on so tight.

Angie disappeared and then was suddenly back with a blanket that she draped over Blair. "To keep him warm," she whispered, sounding scared.

"Thanks, sweetheart," Jim choked, touched by her gentleness. Tears burned in his eyes as he pressed his lips down upon Blair's cold, clammy temple. "Hold on, Chief," he ordered desperately, unable to hold his own terror at bay any longer.

Blair's grip on his shirt fell away as his partner slumped against him. Scared, he tilted Blair's face up and shifted him, lifting his shoulders higher to ease his increasingly labored breathing. Blair was so pale, like a ghost, his dusky lashes and the bruises startlingly dark against his skin. He was losing too much blood, sinking into shock.

"Don't," he pleaded with a fast, broken whisper as he cupped Blair's cheek, his thumb along Blair's jaw. "Don't let go. You hear me? Sandburg! Don't let go!"

Angie rubbed his shoulder, giving wordless comfort as she stood beside him and waited with him for help to arrive. "Don't be scared," she murmured, though her own voice was shaking. "He's brave. He … he won't give up. Heroes never stop doing their best. Even when they're hurt, right? They keep fighting."

His breath a shuddering sob in his chest, he nodded jerkily and clutched Blair closer. "He's a fighter, alright," he husked. "Bravest man I ever met."

The sirens grew steadily closer, more strident, as a crowd gathered around them. A stranger said, "Don't worry; we'll watch the place for you. You go with him to the hospital." Distracted and distantly grateful, he nodded, but all he cared about was the man in his arms, the man slipping away no matter how tightly Jim held onto him.

Finally, with a squeal of brakes the ambulance pulled up, two patrol cars with it. The EMTs appeared and eased Blair away from him, to lay him flat on the sidewalk. They worked quickly, intubating him and hooking him up to an oxygen tank, and starting an IV.

A cop drew Jim upright and a pace away, asked what had happened. He gave fragmented answers, too focused on Blair, on his heartbeat and the care he was being given, to concentrate on other details.

Little Angie, who had been playing on the street nearby when it happened, pulled on the uniformed cop's arm. "I can tell you. I saw it all," she said earnestly. "That car over there drove past, shooting a lot of bullets and Jim shot back. Then the car crashed. But some of their bullets hit Blair and he's hurt real bad."

And then they were lifting Blair onto the gurney, the upper half of it raised to keep him from drowning in his own blood. The EMTs swiftly covered him with a blanket and strapped him securely before rolling the gurney to the ambulance. Jim climbed in behind. The rear door slammed shut and, sirens wailing, they were soon careening through the streets to the hospital.

"How long since he was shot?" the paramedic in the back with him asked calmly.

"Uh, I don't know. Ten, fifteen minutes, maybe," Jim told him shakily, finding it hard to breathe as he gripped his friend's hand and listened to Blair's failing heart.

The technician relayed the information and Blair's vital signs to the hospital. "We're about seven minutes away," he finished and returned to monitoring Blair's pulse and blood pressure. "They'll probably take him straight to the OR," he told Jim as he started a second IV to force fluids in an effort to mitigate blood loss. "He's got a good chance."

Jim nodded mutely. He'd been telling himself the same thing, over and over. The Golden Hour, they called it. If a badly wounded person could be gotten to surgery within an hour of the assault, their chances for recovery were good. If they didn't bleed out, the odds were they'd survive. His grip tightened around Blair's lax hand.

He hadn't told him. Why had he kept putting it off? Why the hell hadn't he told Blair he loved him? Closing his eyes, listening to the faltering heart, he prayed fervently that he hadn't left it too long; that it wasn't too late.

**

The EMTs ran the gurney through the lobby and, led now by a nurse, into a small treatment room where Blair was swiftly transferred onto the examining table. Jim hovered just inside the doorway, thankful that everyone's attention was fixed on helping his partner, all of them too busy to take notice of him. Two were cutting off Blair's clothing and tossing the blood-soaked garments into a biohazard bin, one was monitoring his oxygen intake, while another switched the clear intravenous liquid with what he assumed was O negative blood until they could type and cross-match Blair's blood. God knew, a lab technician was taking more vials of Blair's precious blood than Jim was comfortable with.

A portable x-ray machine was rolled in and shots were taken of his back, chest, and abdomen. Blood was washed away and his back was quickly shaved before a Betadine solution was painted over his skin, coloring it garishly orange. But blood kept leaking from the wounds.

Jim kept glancing at the clock on the wall, counting the minutes down. As fast as they were working, more than forty-five minutes had already elapsed since Blair had been shot.

"Allergies?" someone snapped at him, letting him know they'd noticed him there after all.

"None," he replied.

"He's got a lot of facial and body bruising," the doctor observed with a glance at him.

"He was beaten two nights ago," Jim supplied.

"Was he checked out?"

"No, he said he was fine, and he seemed okay - no confusion, nothing like that."

The doctor nodded briskly, and turned back to her efforts to staunch the flow of blood from Blair's wounds.

"Next of kin?" a nurse asked.

"Me - I can sign whatever's necessary."

She grabbed a clipboard with a release form for surgery on it. He took it from her and a pen, and hastily filled in Blair's name, his own, and signed it.

"Different last name?" she challenged. "Insurance?"

"I'm his partner. I have his Power of Attorney. He's covered and I'll give all the necessary information to Admitting soon as you're done here."

She nodded, turned to grab the sack in which they'd put Blair's personal belongings, and handed it to him before bustling away to put the form into the chart that was fast being assembled.

And then Blair was being wheeled past him as the staff hurried to get him to the Operating Room. He looked up at the clock. At least fifty-six minutes had passed.

Though he wanted to do nothing more than follow, he forced himself to go to the Admitting desk to answer their interminable questions. When they finally finished with him, he turned away and was surprised to see Joel standing there, watching and listening anxiously.

"Dispatch called me," he explained tersely. "How bad is it?"

"Two rounds in the back and bleeding into a lung," Jim told him. "They took him up to the OR a few minutes ago."

Joel searched his face. "How're you doin'?"

Looking away, Jim shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know. Depends on what happens next."

Gently but insistently taking him by the arm, Joel drew him down the hall. "C'mon, I'll buy you a coffee. You look like you need it."

Regarding him bleakly, Jim sighed and allowed himself to be drawn along.

When they were settled at a table in one corner, they sat for some minutes, lost in thought and worry. Jim stared into his mug, too scared to think straight, wishing he'd told Blair how he felt, wondering how Blair really felt about him. But then he stirred restlessly and darted a look at Joel before resuming his scrutiny of the cooling coffee. He took a shaky breath and forced past the tightness of his throat, "That, uh, crack about watching the security tapes. You think … you think Sandburg is … interested?"

Compassion in his eyes, Joel smiled sadly. "Despite how he used to chase anyone in a skirt, I'm more sure about him than I am about you. He's a lot easier to read. Hasn't learned how to hide what he feels."

Jim frowned and leaned back against the chair. "Wouldn't you think I'd notice?"

"We figure you just didn't want to," Joel replied quietly. "Easier that way, when one wants something the other doesn't."

"We?" Jim echoed, with a sharp look. "You talk about us? About that?"

Shrugging, well used to Ellison glares and unfazed by them, Joel sipped his coffee. "People talk, Jim. You know that. Be surprised if you've never picked up on any of the rumors in the PD over the years. We just made sure we never talked about it while you were anywhere in the building. Didn't want to turn around and find you standing there. None of us has a death wish."

His glare fading, Jim went back to staring into his coffee. "I've heard," he admitted. "Never much cared what other people thought, not about that, anyway. Didn't think it mattered. Sandburg … Sandburg's only been out with women since I've known him. I just figured everyone was imagining things, because of how he looks, the earrings."

Joel leaned his elbows on the table and seemed to be trying to decide what to say, or maybe how to say it. "Jim," he finally began, "this is nobody's business but yours and Blair's. But … well, if there's nothing going on, that's a surprise. Man, the two of you have no personal space. You lean into one another. Touch all the time. Always have, right from when he first showed up."

When Jim just looked away, Joel settled back and went on, "You squabble like an old married couple and the affection you feel for one another shines in your faces. Sure, it could be just a damned good friendship but … he gave up everything for you. To protect you. And when you went missing a year ago, he was frantic, pushing Simon around, insisting that you were in trouble."

Joel sighed and rubbed his mouth. "When … when we nearly lost him six months ago, I heard you were crazy with grief and denial, and that you wouldn't quit, even when the EMTs gave up. I heard you brought him back to life, just by touching him. That's not like any friendship I've ever seen. Maybe it's just all part of this … well, you know what I mean," he added with a wary look around to see if anyone was close enough to hear them. Sighing, he shook his head. "Like I say, it's no one's business but yours. I just hope for your sakes, if it is more, that the two of you won't waste all the time you have."

The muscles of Jim's face, jaw and neck tightened. He could do no more than nod jerkily as he wondered how in hell he could have been so blind as to miss what Joel and the others thought they could see. Needing something to moisten his mouth and wash away the thick lump in his throat, he picked up the mug of coffee and drank it down. When he could at last speak, he said hoarsely, "Thanks, Joel. You're a good friend."

Looking around the cafeteria, Joel asked, "Did you know he called the CPU earlier this week, to report the vandalism by the Flames, and to ask for a heightened watch level?"

His attention piqued by the abrupt change of subject, Jim looked up. "I know he reported it. Why?"

"I had H check out the patrol schedule, to see if any of the uniforms had noticed the Flames hanging around. You know, to get background on tying them into the frame-up." He hesitated, then went on. "There were no extra patrols assigned, not when he called, and not when I called earlier. In fact, Shaunnessey Street doesn't show up on their watch list at all."

"What?" Jim exclaimed, his confusion and then anger blossoming in his eyes.

"Looks like they maybe decided to hang 'im out to dry," Joel rumbled with evident disgust.

"Sonova …" Jim cursed lividly. "I want this checked out."

"Already being done," Joel assured him. He gestured toward Jim's empty mug. "You want another cup?"

"Nah," Jim sighed, looking up at the clock on the wall and wondering how long it would be before he'd be able to see Blair. Taking a shaky breath, desperate to distract himself, he returned to the issue Joel had just raised. "It's like they hate him," he observed angrily. "Was the same thing in Vice yesterday. Like they want to personally punish him. That anonymous tip just gave them the chance."

Joel folded his hands together on the table as he listened.

Jim shook his head unhappily. "I know why they'd feel that way. So far as they know, at least until Haas airs his interview, Blair … Blair …."

His voice fell away and he closed his eyes briefly. "A lot of people never did like him hanging around. Saw him as an interloper, I guess. A dilettante. But to refuse a call for assistance? To beat him up when all he was trying to do was help that dying kid?" he demanded, meeting Joel's eyes, "That's … that's a level of punitive behavior that's wrong. Hell, even criminals have their rights and we protect them, too, just like every other citizen, whether we like it or not."

Shaking his head, his gaze growing distant, he said coldly, "I'm not sure I want to be part of an organization that deliberately left an unarmed civilian - who was trying to improve an inner-city community - at risk and then, God, beat him and arrested him on no more than an anonymous tip."

"Jim, slow down," Joel urged. "You know a few bad apples don't mean the whole PD is rotten."

Jim gazed at him but didn't respond. Instead, clutching the small sack of Blair's belongings, he stood and said, "Let's go upstairs. I want to be there when they're done."

"It's gonna be hours yet," Joel objected. Lowering his voice, he said firmly, "I don't want to be close enough for you to listen in. You don't need that."

Irritated, Jim scowled, but he couldn't deny the risk that he'd zone, or that listening would be a kind of torture. Feeling trapped, helpless, he looked around the large, busy room. The clatter of dishes, the noise of countless conversations, the smell of over-steamed food was grating on him. "I need to get some air."

"Okay, let's go for a walk," Joel replied as he, too, stood and followed Jim from the room.

Outside, Jim looked up at the sky, at the gray clouds scudding before the wind, and then he set off, walking aimlessly, not speaking. Joel ambled along beside him, giving him the quiet he needed but making sure he wasn't alone. They circled the hospital in silence, but Jim kept glancing at the building, fear and hope mingling in his thoughts. To distract himself, he reflected on what Joel had said, about having picked up on the vibes between him and Blair. After an hour, he admitted softly, "You're right. At least … you're right about me."

Joel nodded sadly, understanding how hard the admission was and wishing his friend found it easier to confide, to share his pain, and didn't always try so hard to keep everything locked down inside. Gently clasping Jim's shoulder, he murmured, "I figured. You need to tell him."

Once again Jim's gaze lifted to the hospital. He swallowed hard and nodded. Then he turned away and continued walking.

When they went back inside two hours later, they took the elevator upstairs. Jim pressed the intercom on the wall beside the closed, restricted-entry double doors, and told whoever answered that he was waiting for word on Blair Sandburg's condition. He was told to wait in the lounge and someone would talk with him in due course.

Settling in to wait, Joel cautioned again, "Don't be trying to listen in. He wouldn't want you to."

Jim glanced at him and then away, his head tilting unconsciously. He sighed, straightened and nodded. "He's still alive," he said. "His heart's still beating and … and sounds stronger, steadier, than it was." When Joel grimaced at him, he held up his hands to signal he'd be good and refrain from listening further. Just knowing that Blair was holding his own was enough to hold onto until they learned more. Some of the tension eased in his face and shoulders. "If he made it this far …."

With a small smile of understanding, Joel filled in, "Then we can be pretty sure he's gonna be okay. Just needs to heal, is all."

Poignantly glad that Joel was reinforcing his own hopes, a faint smile played around Jim's lips.

Less than half an hour later, the surgeon came out to tell them Blair was in Recovery, and would be taken to a room within the hour. "We got to him in time," the doctor said with satisfaction. "One bullet had lodged in his right lung and the other, after penetrating his left kidney, stopped in his spleen. Unfortunately, we had to remove the spleen, so he'll need to be careful with any infections in the future, but we've repaired the other damage and he's stabilized. He'll be sore for a few weeks. But he should heal just fine."

Jim felt weak with relief. Huge smiles lit both their faces as he and Joel shook the doctor's hand and thanked him profusely.

Joel slapped his back and said, "Well, I best be getting over to Simon's place. Give him an update and let 'im know everything's gonna be okay."

"Thanks, Joel. I appreciate you waiting with me until we heard."

"No sweat," he replied with warm geniality. "You tell Blair we'll all be in to visit him, once he's feeling up to company."

"I'll do that," Jim told him, and watched him walk away.

Alone now for the first time since the shooting, the aftershock swamped him. Shaking, he sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands. God, he'd been so scared, so damned scared. Tears burned his eyes and he panted for breath, but he just kept telling himself, over and over, that Blair was alive. Blair was going to be fine. After a few minutes, once he'd regained a measure of control, he stood and went upstairs to wait in Blair's room, to be there when he was brought in.

**

Blair woke slowly, fading in and out, only distantly catching Jim's voice, as if in fragments of a dream. But he felt safe, so he just listened to the melodious tones, letting them wash over him, surround him.

Gradually, he became aware that Jim was holding his hand and, with effort, he was able to shift his arm, to link his fingers with Jim's, but then he faded off again. Some time later, the words slowly grew more distinct, formed into sentences, but it was still too hard to respond so he just listened contentedly.

"Soon as you're up to it, I want to get away for a few days. Go up to Canada." Jim's grip tightened and his voice grew husky, so low that Blair had to strain to hear. "Maybe it's stupid, I don't know. But … but I want us to be permanent. I want you to know that … that this isn't just convenience or a passing fling or … oh, hell, it's not just about sex, okay?"

His voice faded off and, wondering what the hell Jim was talking about, Blair wrestled with the cotton fog surrounding him and struggled to make sense of the words. Sex was good. Providing Jim wasn't talking about some woman he'd just met that he wanted to go on holiday with. But … Jim wouldn't be talking about sex with him, would he? So, well, then sex was very bad. The whole thing was bad. Sorrow flared, filling him, and dreary resignation settled over him. He'd begun to hope again and that was a mistake. Clearly, a big mistake. His grip loosened, and he wondered if he'd just float back into the darkness for a while. Whatever was going on, wherever he was, he didn't need to hear this.

Jim's grip tightened on his hand, and he felt the heat of Jim's palm on his face and … what the hell? Jim's thumb was brushing lightly over his lips? Dreaming. He had to be dreaming. Good dream, though, so Blair leaned into Jim's palm, into the warmth and tenderness. And then, so close as if Jim was leaning over him, he heard his friend say softly with a wistful ache that sounded so vulnerable, so hopeful and yet afraid, "I want to marry you, Chief. We can do that there. In Canada. Get married. If you want to. I hope you'll want to."

What? Marry? Marry? Jim wanted to marry him?

Blair's breathing caught in stunned disbelief, and then immense joy filled him, flooding him, swamping away everything, all the yearning and longing, all the hurt, sorrow and resignation. Jim wanted to marry him!

He felt breathless with incredible surprise and happiness.

Jim felt the same thing he did! Had maybe felt the same way since … since the fountain. But then, wouldn't he know they were already married in every way that counted? Inseparable in spirit, bound for eternity? Maybe Jim didn't know. Didn't know he felt the same. That all he wanted was a lifetime together. Hell, he wanted forever.

Jim sounded so … uncertain, so anxious. Was he dreaming? He had to be dreaming. What the hell was wrong with him? Jim wouldn't ever say something like that. Would he? Could … could this be real? He had to know. Had to, had to know, was desperate to know. God, please, don't let this be a dream.

The fog and the darkness swirled around him. Jim's voice faded.

No, no. He had to wake up, had to say something, had to ….

He blinked and squinted against the light. Jim was there, leaning so close, looking at him with such unguarded longing and hope. It wasn't a dream! A smile trembled on Blair's lips. He had to tell Jim they didn't have to go to Canada - 'way too late for that anyway. They were married. Already so married.

"Too late," he whispered, his voice rough and dry, wispy.

"What?" Jim exclaimed, his voice louder. "Blair? You waking up?"

"Mmm," he mumbled, blinking heavily, vaguely wishing the light didn't hurt his eyes. "Heard you. Too late."

Color drained from Jim's face, leaving him sickly pale, as Jim gaped at him and then closed his mouth tightly. Sorrow suffused his face before he pulled his palm from Blair's face as if he'd been burned, and turned away to sink into the chair. Pressing his eyes closed, he bowed his head, but when he tried to pull his hand away, Blair held on.

"Already married," Blair insisted drowsily, frowning in confusion at Jim's retreat. Finding it hard to breathe because he hurt pretty bad, he took shallow breaths and tried to wake up enough to explain. "Have b'n, f'r months," he muttered anxiously, desperate to be understood, to make Jim happy. Whatever Jim wanted, so long as they could be together, always be together. "Was worried, man. Din' think y' wanted t' be. But, if y' wan', we c'n make it leg'l."

Jim jerked and turned back to stare at him, all emotion stripped from his face, all feeling walled behind the wary look in his eyes. Standing, his brow puckering in concern, he laid a palm over Blair's brow. "You're sounding delirious, Chief. Must be the drugs."

Drugs? What drugs? With a tiny shake of his head, Blair gazed up at him and blinked owlishly as he studied his partner's face. Tenderness filled him at the sight of the uncertainty in Jim's eyes, and the shadows of anticipated pain. He wanted so bad to make all that hurt go away. Jim was just scared, that was all. He didn't understand. Didn't know how much Blair loved him. How very much Blair wanted and needed him. How Blair couldn't really, not really, live without him. He just needed to explain it, that was all.

God, he wished he wasn't so damned tired and that he could take Jim in his arms, but for some reason he felt nailed to the bed, and the tendrils of fog in his head made it really hard to think. Was he drugged? Didn't matter. He just had to tell Jim it was okay. Everything was, finally, finally, so okay now.

With a reassuring smile he hoped wasn't as fragile he felt, gasping against the tightness in his chest, Blair insisted with earnest care and as much clarity as he could muster, "I h-heard you, man. You pro-posed. 's nice, rea-lly nice, man. But … I said, I said 'yes' m-months ago. W-when you called me … an' I came back. 'member? We m-merged. One, one soul. So's too late. 'm already married t' you."

Understanding dawned on Jim's face, followed swiftly by poignant relief and then he smiled, too, with that small, vulnerable, afraid-to-be-happy smile that always made Blair want to hold him safe and kiss him with delirious abandon.

"I remember," Jim rasped, and swallowed convulsively. "I love you, Chief." He stroked his hand over Blair's head, tenderly combing back the curls.

"'Bout time … you re'lized that," Blair complained, feeling more and more as if he was adrift in a euphoric dream. "Was beginnin' t' wonder … if we were ever … gonna con-consummate it. Wan' to. Don' you wan' to?"

"Yeah, Chief, I want to," Jim replied fondly, warm humor in his voice. "Just as soon as you're healed."

"Good. Shoulda known … you'd wan' it t' be legal," Blair muttered, aggrieved. He yawned and winced against the annoying pull in his chest and the deep pain in his body. "'Bout time," he mumbled again, his eyes growing too heavy to stay open. But, he smiled when he felt the tender, feather-light kiss on his lips. "Love you," he slurred blearily as sleep claimed him.

**

For the next several hours, Jim sat by Blair's side, patiently feeding him ice chips when he awoke muddled and anxious, complaining of being thirsty and moaning as he twisted against the pain. Murmuring reassurances, Jim soothed him back to sleep with light caresses of his cheek and brow. Blair didn't seem to have any memory of what had happened, but Jim wrote that off to the combined effects of the anesthesia and the pain medication his partner had been given.

As he stroked Blair's hair and studied the bruises from the beating he had endured the day before, Jim felt a sense of amazement and profound peace to know Blair loved him - so much that in Blair's mind, they were already married - though he doubted Blair would remember any of the brief conversation that Jim knew he'd never forget.

Orvelle came in late in the afternoon, his kind features twisted in grief for what had happened. "I'm sorry," he said to Jim, shaking his head. "I never wanted the boy hurt."

"I know that, and so does he," Jim reassured him. "And he's going to be fine."

"I'm glad," the coach replied, though he still looked like he was carrying a load of guilt. "I didn't realize it had gotten so bad in the old neighborhood. My folks've been gone for a long time. I just wanted … I just wanted those kids to have a chance."

"The Center is a great thing, Orvelle," Jim insisted. "Those kids love hanging out there. And they're good kids." He turned to gaze at Blair. "That's why the Flames fought back so hard and so fast. That Center is a big threat to them. Gives the people there hope they haven't had. A good, safe place for their kids to be."

Wallace chewed on his lip. "I don't want anyone else getting hurt," he said. "One boy dead; Blair shot." He shook his head. "Maybe I should just shut it down."

"Not yet," Jim argued gently. "Community Policing will be paying close attention after this, and uniformed patrols in the area will be increased. Give the people there a chance to say what they want. When I had to leave with Blair this morning, some guy told me not to worry. Said they'd look after the place."

Nodding, Orvelle told him, "Well, they did. When I got back from 'Frisco this afternoon, several of the parents were there, overseeing the kids. They told me what happened."

"I'm not sure it's a good idea for anyone to stay there alone at night," Jim stated. Though he felt as if he was usurping Blair's prerogative, it had to be said. "And there should be two staff members there all the time, for security. But I think the place can work and I really think it's needed."

"I'll think on it," Orvelle sighed. "An' talk to Blair when he's feeling better. In the meantime, you tell him I was here - and tell him I'm real sorry he was hurt."

"I'll tell him."

Orvelle shook his hand and, with a last glance at Blair, he said he was heading back down to the Center, to talk to some of the people there.

Two hours after that, when Blair again drifted back to consciousness, he seemed more lucid if also more uncomfortable. Once again, Jim gave him ice chips to ease the dryness of his mouth. Blair looked around the room, a small frown puckering his brow, and he asked, "What the hell happened?"

"The Flames. You got hit in a drive-by while you were painting over the graffiti this morning," Jim told him. "How's the pain? You need anything?"

Blair shook his head. "Not yet." Looking up at Jim, his gaze narrowed and he seemed to be trying to remember. Then, he frowned and his gaze skittered away, his fingers plucking anxiously at the sheet covering him. "I've had the oddest dreams," he revealed, shooting uncertain glances at Jim. "They feel so real, though. Like we've been talking. But … just fragments. Don't make much sense."

Jim rubbed his chin, wondering what he could say. With a shrug, he decided to go with it. "You mean about telling me we've been married for months, and that it's about time we consummated it?"

Blair's eyes widened and his lips parted. "I … I said all that?"

"Uh huh," Jim confirmed, a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. "Really set me straight when I proposed. Said there was no point going to Canada 'cause we've been married for months."

"Proposed? You, you proposed?" Blair stammered, his eyes widening with shock.

"You said you should have known I'd want to make it legal, and you said that was okay, just not really necessary," Jim went on, trying to keep a straight face but losing the battle. He felt he was taking undue advantage of his partner's battered condition. Cupping Blair's cheek, he stated, "I love you, Chief. Took me a while to figure it out and even longer to admit it. I wasn't sure how you felt. I'm glad to know we're on the same page."

"You proposed and I missed it?" Blair asked again, sounding dazed - and immensely regretful.

"Nope, you didn't miss it - you just don't remember," Jim replied, chuckling fondly. "If it makes you happy, I'll do a repeat performance when you're feeling better."

Blair smiled widely then, the light of joy sparkling in his eyes. "Yeah, I'd like that." For a long moment, he simply gazed at Jim. "I feel like Sally Field," he said, awe in his voice.

"Sally Field?" Jim echoed, beginning to think Blair wasn't as lucid as he'd thought.

"Yeah, at the Oscars," he explained. "You love me. You really love me," he whispered, as if overwhelmed by the knowledge.

"Yeah," Jim agreed indulgently, figuring the sweet sappiness was the result of the chemicals still floating around in Blair's blood. He bent to kiss Blair's brow, and then his lips. "And you really love me."

"Damn straight," Blair affirmed emphatically. His limited energy was already beginning to flag, though. "I … for a while, I thought you didn't want …" he began uncertainly.

"I know, you told me this afternoon," Jim cut in. "I'm sorry, Chief. But, I wasn't sure how you felt, either. Not really. Guess I should have figured it out sooner." He paused and studied his partner's wan face, reading the strain, the exhaustion, and the pain of his injuries. He wondered if Blair would remember everything the next time he woke up. Not that it mattered. He'd say it over and over again. Make up for all the months when he should have said it and hadn't. "Rest, partner. We've got lots of time to get used to the idea. Just rest, okay?"

Trustingly, Blair nodded and closed his eyes. But his fingers tightened possessively around Jim's until he again drifted into sleep. About a half hour later, he jerked into confused wakefulness, muttering as if his mind had been going over and over what had just happened between them. "Can't tell anyone," he insisted fretfully. "Could make trouble. Has t' be secret. Just 'nother secret."

"Shh, don't worry about it, Chief," Jim reassured him. Not liking the deepening lines around Blair's mouth and eyes, he buzzed for a nurse and asked if his partner could have something for the pain. She nodded and left. Returning shortly, she gave Blair a shot, and he settled, sinking into a deeper, drug-enhanced sleep.

While Blair slept, Jim relaxed in the chair beside him and thought about what the kid had said. About his fears that their relationship might only cause trouble. Jim really didn't think there'd be a problem beyond the unacceptable way too many downtown viewed Blair. Hell, it seemed to him that most people thought they'd been an item for years.

But the other thing, the 'just another secret' thing, troubled him more. Blair carried a lot of his secrets and had suffered too much to keep them safe. His throat thickened with the knowledge that, even hurt and drugged, Blair's first thought … his seemingly every thought … was about him. About keeping him safe.

Maybe that's what love was, real love; a depth of love that was pervasive and all-encompassing - a rich and pure love he'd never experienced before. Sitting in the darkening room, he decided it was time to balance the scales - time for him to be the one who gave more; long past time for him to think about what Blair needed in his life, and not always just assume that Blair would conform to his.

Blair slept until after midnight and, beside him, Jim dozed off in the chair. But when Blair began to stir again, mumbling and muttering, Jim was instantly awake and standing to see if he needed anything.

"Pretty sure of yourself," Blair was rambling, still half-asleep and sounding feistier than he had on earlier wakings. "Proposed? Huh. Haven't even been out on dates."

"Yeah, well, we've been living together for years," Jim replied with a chuckle, amused in spite of himself by his partner's disgusted tone in his half-awake state.

"Huh?" Blair blinked in confusion. "What?"

"Nothing, Chief." Jim laid a palm over his brow. "You thirsty? Need something for pain?"

"No, 'm fine," Blair replied and yawned. "Sorry I woke you, man," he murmured as he drifted right back to sleep, clearly not coherent enough to realize he was in hospital.

"Time you stopped being sorry for stuff, Sandburg," Jim replied affectionately as he adjusted the blankets and then sat down again. "You've got nothing to be sorry for."

**

The next morning, Blair was still sleeping when Joel arrived to see how things were going. He brought coffee and a bag of donuts with him. "Figured you might want some breakfast," he said with a grin, handing them over. "How's Blair doing?"

"You're a life saver." Jim pried off the lid of the coffee container and inhaled deeply before taking an appreciative sip. "He's been in and out of it. Will probably be more awake today - and feel the pain more, too. Anything new on the case?"

"We finally found the kid that stashed the heroin in the equipment supply room," Joel replied. With a satisfied smile, he went on, "When we dangled an accessory to murder charge over him, he started singing like a canary. Said he had nothin' to do with the drugs given to Andy. Said it was all Reefer's idea - Reginald Coster, the current leader of the Flames. Told us Reefer wanted the Center shut down and that Blair was made-to-order for a frame, what with being a liar and fraud an' all."

When Jim winced at that, Joel hastened on, "And that's all cleared up, too. Haas' weekly Sunday evening news magazine show broke the story last night. Started off with shots of the Center and Blair, cut to the press conference footage, and then back to Blair's interview where he explained everything. Man, I wish I'd been there to see that. Anyway, Haas reinforced that the press conference was a scam to get the media off the back of the police and let you do your job. Bastard actually sounded smug about it. Like he's known all the time. He took some good shots at Rainier. Finished off by telling them they'd better consult their lawyers and congratulating Orvelle, both for setting up the Center and having hired a hero to run the place. The tag was you, telling those kids what a hero Blair is. Was great. You'll want a copy."

Jim huffed a tired laugh at that and shook his head.

"Wait, it gets better." Joel chuckled. "Colin McKenzie, counsel for Rainier, called the office this morning, looking for Blair. Said the university might have something of interest to offer him and said that Rainier certainly regretted having acted so precipitously."

Lifting his brows in speculation, Jim smiled and nodded. "That sounds promising."

"And then Berkshire Publishing called," Joel told him, evidently enjoying the fun of dropping bombshell after bombshell when Jim gaped at him. "They want to talk to Blair about publishing his 'novel'."

Grimacing at that, Jim drawled, "They never quit, do they?"

"Apparently not," Joel agreed. "Getting back to the case, we rounded up most of the Flames late last night. Charged the bunch of them with harassment and conspiracy to commit murder, defacement of property, drug trafficking and a bunch of other stuff. Probably won't be able to make a case against most of them - their identities are hidden by masks in the security tapes - but we're serving notice that the Community Center is off-limits."

Sitting down in the chair near the window, he gave a low laugh before continuing. "H was something to see during the interrogations. He can be pretty intimidating when he wants to be - kept looming over them, growling about how they'd nearly killed a friend of his, and how he didn't take kindly to that."

"They're just damned lucky it was H and not me."

Nodding wryly, Joel he lifted a hand. "Wish you could have seen Megan when she got into the act. I swear she put the fear of God into those young hoodlums." Grinning in memory, he shook his head. "Anyway, I think they'll think twice before messing with the Center again. Oh, and the folks down in the neighborhood? They had a community meeting last night. Told Orville they really hope he'll keep the Center open, an' they volunteered to help run the place, makin' sure there's always enough staff around to be safe. They passed the hat to collect money for flowers for Blair - they should be arriving sometime today."

"Sounds like everything is under control," Jim observed.

Scratching his cheek, Joel shrugged. "For now, I guess. The Flames'll still be a problem, but at least the Center gives kids another choice of where to hang out, and some positive examples to follow."

"Coffee? Do I smell coffee?" Blair interjected drowsily and then winced and groaned when he shifted to try to sit up.

"Whoa, slow down, Chief," Jim cautioned, dropping a light hand on his partner's shoulder. "You're not quite ready to sit up yet on your own."

"Ow, that hurts," Blair complained as he pressed an arm against his body to splint the pain, and then sniffed again. "Coffee?"

Chuckling, Jim pushed the electronic control to lift the head of the bed a little, and then shared his coffee with Blair. "Not too much," he directed. "See if your stomach'll tolerate it."

Blair sighed blissfully after his long sip, but grimaced again at the sharp, aching pain that filled his body. "Hey, Joel," he called. "Heard you say the Center is doing okay. I'm glad." Looking back at Jim, he asked, "How long've I been in here, anyway? Everything's kind of a blur."

"Not quite twenty-four hours," Jim told him. "You need something for the pain?"

"Nah," Blair waved the suggestion off. "Feel too whacked-out and groggy as it is. Could eat, though."

"Good to see you awake, Blair," Joel told him, beaming cheerfully. "I gotta be going. I'll tell the nurse at the desk that you'd like something to eat, okay?"

"Thanks, man," Blair replied with a grateful smile. "And say 'hello' to everyone for me. Tell 'em I'm doin' okay."

"Will do. They'll be glad to hear it. Catch you later," Joel returned with a casual wave as he headed out the door.

Jim gave Blair another sip of his coffee and then asked, "Groggy, huh? So - do you remember anything about yesterday?"

Blair yawned. Sniffed and snuggled a little down into his pillow. Gazing up at Jim, his expression happy despite the discomfort he was feeling, he replied seductively, "I don't know. I might just've been dreaming, you know?"

"You really think we should date first?" Jim teased, leaping into the heart of the matter.

His grin widening, Blair shook his head. "We've been living together for years."

"That's what I said," Jim stated with an emphatic nod.

"So … you really want to take a ride to Canada?" Blair asked, searching his face.

"Soon as you're up to the trip, Chief," Jim affirmed, all trace of teasing gone. "That's if it's what you want, too."

"C'mere, Ellison," Blair said with mock toughness, "an' I'll show you what I want."

When Jim leaned in close, Blair caught his shirt, pulled him closer … and kissed him lingeringly. Then, he murmured huskily against Jim's lips, "Get me a wheelchair, man, and I'm good to go right now."

"Only if you brush your teeth first, Junior," Jim quipped, wrinkling his nose.

Blair snorted a laugh, only to moan again as he pressed down hard on his body. "Not nice to make the shot guy laugh, Jim," he chided, but his eyes were sparkling as he kept his grip on Jim's shirt, keeping him close.

A nurse bustled into the room, and Jim abruptly broke away. But when he saw a shadow flit across Blair's face, he immediately reached out to take Blair's hand with clear possessiveness. "We were, uh, just wondering when I can take my guy here home," he said in a tone that left no room for doubt about what 'my guy' meant, even though the words stuck in his throat a bit. Not because he was ashamed or embarrassed, but only because he'd never made a habit of advertising his personal business. Glancing at Blair, he was glad he'd made the effort. If he could win surprised pleasure like what he saw glowing in Blair's eyes, it was worth learning how to be a little less private.

The nurse lifted a brow but smiled, her expression a bit wistful as she gazed from one man to the other. "Well, that's up to the doctor," she said, as she moved in to take Blair's pulse and blood pressure. "So, you're hungry, huh?" she asked him. "We'll try some apple juice and if you can tolerate that, I'll see if we can rustle you up some eggs. How does that sound?"

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed. "I'm starving."

Laughing, she patted his arm. "Well, that's a good sign. A good, uh, appetite is a strong indication that you're getting better."

Blair snickered and Jim blushed as she turned and left the room to get her patient some nourishment.

Blair searched Jim's face. "Is … is going to Canada what you still wanted to talk to me about?"

"Yeah, Chief," Jim told him, tightening his grip on Blair's hand. "I want forever, Blair. I want you to always know that's what I want."

"Man, that is like - fantastic! I was afraid I was the only one who wanted that." And then he whined, "I can not wait to get out of here." He looked so distressed about having to wait until he was stronger that Jim couldn't resist leaning down to kiss him again. Thoroughly.

**

Despite his desire to stay awake, Blair tended to drift off and sleep for long periods for the next few days. Jim, reassured that his partner was well on the way to recovery, felt comfortable leaving him to rest. The first time he left the hospital, he went home, showered and slept for twelve hours. When he got up, he called Orvelle and arranged to have Blair's gear packed and moved back to the loft. He spent the rest of that evening with Blair but went back home to sleep. The next day, he went down to the PD.

Limping a little but no longer needing a cane, he greeted his colleagues and responded genially to their enthusiastic welcome and their questions about how Blair was doing. After reassuring them that his partner was doing great, he hesitated and then said, "I think you've all figured it out, but I want to say straight out that everything Sandburg wrote in his paper about me is true. I'll get copies, so you can read it all for yourselves, okay?"

"Yeah, that'll be just fine, Jim - but maybe only one copy," Joel said on behalf of all of them. "Don't want too many floating around, an' we'll give it back when we're done." Jim nodded and was touched that the others all just seemed grateful he was finally being straight with them. H even patted him companionably on the back, letting him know there were no hard feelings about him not sharing the truth long before.

Jim followed Joel into Simon's office. "Anything more on what happened with CPU?" he asked, not wanting to linger on his disclosure. "And what's the deal with the guys from Vice and Patrol over Friday night's fiasco?"

"Formal reprimands and suspensions all round," Joel told him. "IA is looking into everything and some might lose their jobs over it all." He hesitated and then added with clear reluctance, "However, the latest twist on the press conference has got some riled up that they were never told the truth. They're saying we should'a been straight with them and told them it was a scam from the beginning. A few are even getting high and mighty about how we shouldn't've left Blair hanging, with nobody knowing why he did what he did."

Jim's mouth twisted as he sank into a chair. "Maybe they've got a point."

Joel snorted and leaned forward on the desk. "Now don't you go getting all bent outta shape. Maybe there will come a time to be more open about some stuff - but we shouldn't just break under the pressure of opinion, here. There're good reasons you and Blair kept things to yourselves. Damned good reasons."

"Maybe so, but he carried the can for all of it," Jim shot back.

"Publicly, maybe," Joel agreed. "But it's not been easy on you, either. An' the kid has finessed it. I say we leave it alone for now. Regardless of what they knew or didn't, the guys in Vice and Patrol were all out of line. Way out of line. As for the rest?" He shrugged. "Let it ride, at least until you, Blair, and Simon can talk it through. As it stands, we all got what we wanted. Blair's name is cleared and he gets to come back here. In a crazy, sick way, even the shooting has helped that community - they've pulled together. Blair's courage, and his getting hurt because of what he was doing for them, has made them find their own courage. They're standing up against the Flames now."

"I don't know if we all got what we want," Jim sighed, and stared out the window. "He's great with those kids, Joel. You saw him down there. I'm not sure … I'm not sure that working here is what he really wants or if he's just doing what he thinks I want."

"Then you best ask him," Joel returned evenly. "There's been more than enough second-guessing and assumptions being made to last us all a lifetime. Ask him what he really wants, Jim. Just ask him."

Jim nodded and stood to go but Joel asked, sounding unusually tentative, "Uh, probably none of my business, but did you talk to him about … you know?"

Jim relaxed as he smiled. "Yeah, I did."

"And?"

"And you were right. Thanks."

A wide grin split Joel's face. Slapping his palm on the desk, he cheered softly, "All right!"

**

The days slipped past and Blair grew stronger. When the attorney from Rainier visited him in the hospital, he listened to what the man had to offer and then nodded. "I accept the settlement. And I'll submit my real dissertation when I'm feeling up to an oral defense. I'll get back to you about the possibility of a position on the faculty."

Jim, leaning against the wall and listening to the discussion, waited until the lawyer left and then said, "I know you've told me that you were getting sick of the politics, Chief. But that was a good offer. You sure you don't want to teach, maybe do more research?"

"I can do research without being on the faculty," Blair replied with a small shrug. "And, yeah, I liked some of the teaching but marking papers and tests was a drag. I really don't want to get pulled into all the territorial and ego crap that goes on again. Maybe a part-time gig, teaching a senior seminar or something. That might work."

Jim nodded. "Whatever you want, Chief." He left it at that, though he knew Joel was right. They needed to talk about what Blair would really want to do with his life, but he couldn't seem to find the right way to lead into the discussion, even when it was presented on a silver platter. He guessed it was because he was still trying to decide himself if he really wanted to go back to the PD, after everything that had happened.

When Berkshire also tracked Blair down, Sandburg was a lot less civil. Jim listened as he told them in no uncertain terms that he was still considering filing charges against them and he had no interest, whatsoever, in ever doing business with them. Jim figured it was only a matter of time before they offered a settlement, too.

One day, restless and bored by his prolonged confinement, Blair irritably demanded to know why Jim wouldn't take his side on being discharged early. "You were a medic, man. You can tell them you can look after me," he insisted.

"Uh, uh," Jim declined, shaking his head and crossing his arms. "You were very seriously injured, Chief. Hell, they had to take out your spleen. You're not getting out of here until you're officially pronounced fit to go."

Vastly unimpressed, Blair snorted. And then, several thoughts flickered over his mobile features and he looked at Jim as if weighing him in some way. "God help me," he muttered.

Frowning, Jim narrowed his eyes. "What?"

"The spleen - that has something to do with the immune system, right?" Blair confirmed.

"Uh huh, helps you fight infections. And you don't have one now," Jim told him heavily. "So you're gonna have to be extra careful."

Leaning back against his pillows, Blair gave a miniscule shake of his head as a small, close-lipped smile of bemusement grew on his face.

"Now what?"

"I can see it all now, man," Blair replied with great solemnity, as if deeply concerned. "I'll be eighty-five and you'll be ninety-five, and I still won't be allowed out of the loft without you bundling me all up. Wool hat on my head, warm mitts on my hands, and you tying a thick, woolen scarf around my neck, muttering, 'Gotta keep warm, Chief. Don't want to risk you getting sick, now, do we?'"

Jim pressed his lips together but couldn't hold back the laugh. "Hell, Chief. That's you now -- in July, let alone the middle of winter!"

Laughing softly, Blair nodded. "I know. But it'll be fun to have you dress me up before I go out into the big, dangerous world."

Grinning, Jim shook his head. "Ninety-five, huh?" When Blair nodded, still smiling, he said, "Works for me, Chief. Works for me."

At long last, the day came when he could take Blair home from the hospital. Though Jim could have returned to active duty by then, he'd gotten vacation leave approved so that he'd be off until Blair was pronounced fit for work. Blair was a lot better than he'd been, but he still needed recovery time and the surgeon ordered him to take it easy for at least a month.

Not inclined to be fussed over, Blair insisted he felt fine as he climbed out of the truck, and was just damned glad to be home. But he hunched a little as he walked, belying his words, and Jim kept a steadying hand on his back as they made their way into the building.

Once they were inside the loft and Jim had helped him out of his jacket, Blair looked around, and a smile grew at the sight of his things once again in their places on the walls and bookshelf. "You moved everything back!"

"Orvelle helped, along with kids from the basketball team," Jim told him. "I'm glad you don't mind that I kinda usurped your right to discuss it with Orvelle personally."

"Yeah, well, circumstances kinda got in the way of that," Blair replied with a small laugh. Moving into the kitchen, he plugged in the kettle. When Jim followed and wrapped his arms around him from behind, Blair leaned into the embrace. "I take it that some of my stuff might not be where it used to be," he murmured contentedly.

"Nope," Jim agreed, nuzzling Blair's neck. "Your clothes, favorite pillow, and laptop are upstairs."

"Mmm," Blair sighed as he turned and wrapped his arms around Jim's waist. He lifted his head to meet Jim's lips and they kissed, only breaking apart when the kettle began to whistle. "Want some tea?" he asked huskily. "Or I could make a pot of coffee?"

"I'd rather have you," Jim replied with a seductive smile. "But I guess we still have to wait a bit for that," he added, stepping back. "Don't want to do any damage."

Sighing, Blair turned to make his mug of tea. "This sucks, man," he complained. "I want to jump your bones but I'm afraid I'd fall asleep right in the middle of the interesting stuff, you know? It's the pits."

"Yeah, well," Jim grimaced and shrugged. He went to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water, and then followed Blair into the living room to sit down beside him on the sofa. "Jumping bones might have to wait, but …" he said, as he hooked an arm around Blair's shoulders, "nothing says we can't do a bit of necking, right?"

Grinning, Blair set down his tea and said, "Lay it on me, man. I am, like, so ready to do some serious necking. Even a little groping."

Not long after, Jim helped him up the stairs. There, he helped Blair undress and ease into the bed. After stripping quickly himself, he crawled in and slipped next to his partner, molding his body around Blair's to hold him close. They touched and kissed languidly, reveling in the sensation of being skin to skin, but before the heat could build, Jim tucked Blair's head against his shoulder. "Slow down, Chief. We've got lots of time. You're faking a good game, but I can see you could use a nap."

Laughing softly, Blair nodded against his skin. A moment later, his breathing deepened and evened out.

Jim smiled as he held Blair and thought how very glad he was to have Blair in his bed.

**

Blair got stronger with each succeeding day and he figured the sheer joy he felt was doing wonders for his healing process. Though he was a man who had always been inclined toward happiness, the last few months had worn him down, until he'd wondered if he'd ever be truly contented again. But now, he was happier than he'd ever dreamed it possible to be, fairly brimming over, and he made no effort to contain it. And he was delighted that Jim seemed just as blissful, and more relaxed than Blair could remember him ever being.

They didn't do all that much. Hung around the apartment for the first couple days he was home. Went for walks after that, in the park or along the harbor front. When they passed the bench he'd been sitting on when Orvelle called, he took Jim's hand and just held on, but wouldn't say what had momentarily darkened his eyes when Jim asked.

"Doesn't matter," he replied, looking up with a slow smile. "Ancient history, man."

Jim let it go and just drew him close into his side, anchoring him there with an arm around his shoulders.

And they spent a lot of time in bed, wrapped around one another. But however much Blair teased and even began to push for more, Jim held them both back. "Not yet," he'd demur. "The dressings aren't even off yet. You need more time to heal."

Blair would sigh, but desist, content for the moment to feel Jim's skin against his, to be able to kiss and touch to his heart's satisfaction.

The day the dressings came off, he decided he'd waited long enough and made a determined effort to move past heavy petting. When Jim just laughed and wrestled him, albeit fairly gently, into submission, he huffed, "Okay, that's it. I get it. We gotta be legal. Fine. I am so ready to go to Canada."

Jim laughed so hard, Blair was afraid his partner might hurt himself. "Legal," he spluttered, then burst out laughing again.

Blair got the distinct feeling he was missing something and demanded to know what was so funny.

"You are, Chief," Jim finally managed to explain as he tweaked a curl. "When you were more than half out of it at the hospital, you were in quite a snit that I had to have it legal, as if we couldn't, uh, I think you said consummate our relationship until it was." But his laughter faded as his fingertips traced the planes of Blair's face. "I don't care about 'legal'. I just don't ever want to hurt you again."

"Ah, Jim," Blair sighed, his annoyance gone. "I've wanted this for so long. Wanted to be with you, to make you feel so good. God, man, I want to make love so bad I'm ready to bust, you know? You're driving me crazy, here."

Jim bent to kiss him, and slid his hand along Blair's body. "Me, too, Chief," he whispered hoarsely. "Me, too."

"So…?" Blair prompted, his own hand straying to clasp Jim firmly, and grinning impishly at the reaction he got.

"You sure?" Jim groaned, his hard-pressed ability to resist waning fast.

"Ooohhhh, yeah," Blair assured him, and then eagerly set out to prove it.

**

Two days later, they loaded up the truck with their luggage and set off for the border. Blair was fairly bouncing in the seat, his smile radiant as he flicked through a travel guide and chattered about what they might do and where they might go. "Whistler looks really great," he said, gazing at the photos of the mountains and the picture-postcard village. "But so does the Island," he went on, riffling through the book to find Victoria. "What do you think?" he asked, looking across at Jim.

"Whatever turns your crank, Chief," Jim replied, sounding preoccupied as he made the turn onto the highway.

Blair studied him and set the book aside. "You sure you want to do this?" he asked with a slight frown.

"Huh?" Jim's eyes flickered as he played back the conversation, obviously not having paid close attention, and then nodded. "I'm the one who proposed, remember?"

"Um, actually, no," Blair replied with a small grin. "I missed it."

"You didn't miss it," Jim reminded him. "You just don't remember. You told me it was too late."

"I what?" he exclaimed. "No way."

"Yep," Jim said. "Scared the shit out of me. But then you explained that it was too late because we'd already been married for months." Glancing at Blair, his eyes glinting with devilish humor, he went on, "That's when you complained that we hadn't consummated it and accused me of having to make it legal."

"Oh, man, I hate it when drugs fog my memory," Blair griped, but then, imagining the moments in question, he snickered. "Scared ya, huh?"

"Uh huh," Jim grunted. "Finally worked up my nerve to come clean and you turned me down flat. Wasn't pretty, Chief."

Blair laughed. "Okay, okay, I get the picture. But if going to Canada isn't what's bothering you, what is? You were a million miles away, man."

Sobering, Jim shrugged. "Well … I guess I've just been wondering … do you really want to work for the PD? Carry a weapon, all that?" Before Blair could answer, he kept going, getting it all out now that he'd started. "I was thinking that, well, I enjoyed working at the Center, too. Maybe, maybe I should quit MCU. Maybe we could work at something we both could enjoy."

"Quit?" Blair echoed, gaping at him. "You'd quit being a cop … for me?"

"I … I didn't much like how you got treated, Chief," Jim replied. "I don't care how pissed off some of them were downtown. They treated you like shit. I don't know … I don't know if I want to be part of that."

"Well, first of all, you're not part of that; none of our friends were part of that," Blair insisted firmly. "A few jerks don't define the whole PD."

"Yeah, well, whatever," Jim grunted, his eyes on the road. "Maybe it's time to consider a change. For both of us."

Twisting in his seat, Blair faced him and shook his head. "Let's sort some stuff out right now," he stated. "First, I want to be your partner, in everything. Uh, you're right that I'm not jumping at the bit to carry, but I'll do it. And I will use a gun, if I have to - hell, I already have. More than once. I prefer peaceful solutions, Jim, but I'm not a fanatic about it. If someone's shooting at us, I'm gonna shoot back."

When Jim gave him a quick glance but didn't say anything, Blair impatiently raked his hair back. "Jim, I love the work. Maybe not the, the bodies but I want to help get the ones who do that to people, kill them like that, hurt them. I like the puzzles, figuring out how the pieces fit. I like the feeling that what we do matters. So, if you've been thinking of quitting for me, don't."

"I liked working with the kids," Jim persisted. "It was different, helping decent kids, not just dealing with the dregs all the damned time."

"Yeah, well, I liked it, too," Blair agreed, sitting back. "And we can still do that as volunteers, right?"

When Jim nodded thoughtfully, he went on, "You're a sentinel, Jim. I know you have a love/hate relationship with that, but that is what you are. And you're great at what you do. And I know you like getting the bad guys off the street even more than I do. You're a protector. Do not think you have to deny what you are for me."

Grimacing, Jim argued, "But I do deny it, Chief. I deny what I am every damned day. I let you go through hell because I was so caught in denial."

"Oh, so that's what this is about," Blair said witheringly. "Guilt."

"No!" Jim protested. When Blair just looked out the window, he sighed, pulled over and parked on the shoulder. "Well, maybe, partly," he admitted, staring out the windshield. "Maybe it's just time that I … that I admitted what I am."

"No," Blair muttered.

"But -"

"NO!" he said more forcibly as he again turned to face Jim. "Not until two conditions are met," he added in a tone that brooked no argument.

When Jim lifted his brows and stared at him, Blair continued, "One: we have to be absolutely sure that there is no risk to you whatsoever in revealing your senses - and I suspect that won't be the case until we retire."

Jim's lips twisted and his jaw tightened, but he didn't dispute it. "And the second condition?" he asked dryly.

"You have to be able to say you're a sentinel proudly, without any discomfort and absolutely no vestige of that damned certainty you carry around that you're some kind of freak," Blair stated. "The day you can admit - and really mean it - that you are a miracle, a fucking, beautiful, amazing miracle, like I know you are, then okay. But not until then, because I will not have you somehow sacrificing your peace of mind and setting yourself up for all kinds of grief, just because you think that would make me happy. It wouldn't. You got that?"

Glancing away, swallowing hard, Jim swiped at his nose and sniffed. "Yeah, I got it."

"Fine," Blair snapped, sitting back and crossing his arms. After a moment, he reached again for the guide book, muttering under his breath, "Freak. The man still thinks he's a freak. Right. Man's a fucking Greek god with senses I'd kill for but no, he thinks he's a freak. Shit."

Jim's mouth twitched and he shook his head. "Greek god?"

"Well, yeah, have you looked in a mirror lately? Adonis had nothing on you, pal," Blair growled.

"Miracle?"

"Yep. An amazing, wondrous, incredible miracle of being, the best humanity could ever aspire to be," Blair continued to mutter, flipping through the pages.

Jim looked over at him and his voice was gentle as he said, "When I'm with you, I can almost begin to believe all that. You … you make me feel like a miracle, Chief."

Blair's hands stilled and he drew a deep breath. Lifting his head, he met Jim's eyes. "Yeah? Well, good. Because I wouldn't even be here, man, if you hadn't brought me back. You … you have such power, Jim. Such amazing gifts. And your soul … your soul is magnificent. I wish, I wish so bad, that you could see yourself as I see you."

Jim gazed at him, his expression nakedly vulnerable, all the defenses that held all the hurts at bay stripped away. Mutely, he unsnapped his seatbelt and slid across the bench to embrace Blair hard, as if he'd never let go. Kissing him over and over, almost frantically, he rasped, "Don't ever stop loving me, Chief. God, please, don't ever stop loving me."

"I won't," Blair vowed, kissing him right back and then holding him, just holding him, until Jim stopped shaking. He pressed his lips against Jim's brow, and then asked, "Okay, now?"

"Yeah," Jim replied, drawing away, and then scrubbing his face. Leaning back against the headrest, he sighed. "I hate feeling like a freak."

"I know." Blair settled his head against Jim's shoulder. "I think it's just hard for you to think of yourself as special," he mused. "And I know the senses aren't always easy; are sometimes downright irritating. So that tends to reinforce that they're a problem, not a gift. But we'll keep working on them. I promise, Jim. The day will come when you will feel really good about who you are, even grateful."

Jim thought about everything Blair had said. And then he sat up, his face creased with concentration. "I'm grateful now," he exclaimed in awe, as if it was a sudden revelation. Turning to Blair, cupping his cheek, he repeated, "I'm grateful right now. If I wasn't a sentinel, I wouldn't have met you. Wouldn't have been able to bring you back. Would have l-lost you. How can I not be grateful for all that?"

Smiling, Blair kissed Jim's palm. "That's a start, man. You just keep feeling that way," he said tenderly. Tilting his head, he asked, "So, you ready to hit the road again?"

"Yeah," Jim grinned and kissed him quickly before sliding back behind the wheel. "Let's go."

When they got to the border fifteen minutes later, they passed across their ID. Then the Canadian border official asked, "Purpose of your visit?"

"Honeymoon," Jim told him without missing a beat.

Blair's brows rose under his curls, and he grinned widely as the guard returned their IDs with a smile. "Congratulations, gentlemen. Have a great time."

As they pulled away, Blair reached over to lay his hand on Jim's thigh. "So, when're you gonna ask?" he enquired, his tones warm with anticipation.

"Ask?"

"You said you'd ask me again, when I was feeling better," Blair reminded him. "If we're going on our honeymoon, we're almost out of time for the question."

Dropping a hand from the steering wheel to curl around Blair's fingers, Jim asked, "Blair Sandburg, will you marry me?"

"Too late," Blair quipped, and Jim swatted at him. But Blair grabbed his hand and held on. Raising Jim's fingers to his lips, kissing them lingeringly, he avowed, "I gave you my soul months ago, Jim Ellison, and it's yours for all time. This, my man," he went on, waving at Canada, "this is just a formality." Kissing Jim's fingers again, he murmured, "I love you, Jim. And we are so married."

Once again, Jim wheeled to the side of the road. Taking Blair into his arms, their kiss was deep, full of passion. Blair drew away, just enough to say, "Would you quit fooling around, man? We need to find us a hotel room - and I mean real soon. We got a honeymoon to celebrate!"

Laughing, Jim tugged at his hair, and then slid back behind the wheel. "I don't know," he teased, trying his best to sound serious. "I think we should find a Justice of the Peace first."

Groaning, Blair slid down in his seat. "Legal. The man just has to make it legal."

"Well, I'm a cop, Sandburg. Legal is what we do," he quipped.

Smiling blissfully, Blair shook his head. "Okay, yes, I'll marry you. Happy now? Can we just go and do it, and find a hotel room?"

Chuckling, Jim nodded and pulled back into the traffic. "Very happy now," he asserted. "Love you, too … Munchkin."

Blair roared with laughter. "Munchkin?" he spluttered. "Oh, you are gonna so pay for that."

"Counting on it, Chief," Jim replied with a grin, a knowing glance at Blair's groin, and a wicked wink. "Really counting on paying dearly for it."

Snickering, Blair bargained, "How about we find a hotel room and then, later, much later, find a J.P.?"

"Sounds like a plan, Chief," Jim nodded, smiling broadly. "Sounds like a plan."

Finis

Back to Part 1

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Acknowledgments: I'm grateful to Trislinday, Alyjude and StarWatcher for their very helpful and enthusiastic beta support. Thank you to Marianne for the cover and Patt for the interiors.