Sentinel Code by Legion

Sentinel Code - Legion

Stealing silently past the dozing guard at the desk, Blair following in his slipstream with practiced ease, Jim frowned, annoyed for reasons that had little to do with breaking into a secure national facility. He led the way down the long, empty hall to the storage area they needed, dodging the surveillance cameras with hardly any effort. The keypad for the lock wasn't a challenge, either, and in moments they were inside, flipping on the lights with impunity because he knew what the guard's routine was to the minute and would have heard him coming in any case.

Though Jim stood motionless for a moment, running through his senses to be sure their intel wasn't wrong about the security measures inside the room, Blair eagerly leaped for the nearest file cabinet. It only took him a moment's study of the outside labels to understand the system used to organize the records, and then he was off, running down the row to the one they needed. It was locked, too, of course, but they had acquired a key earlier that day without much more difficulty than they had had getting inside in the first place.

Jim watched him from the door, resisting the urge to grumble at him to hurry. "This was just too easy."

"Why wouldn't it be?" Blair said, mind clearly on his gloved fingertips as they sorted through folder tabs. "Military service records might have sensitive information in them, but for the most part, I'd say it's hardly worth the trouble to steal those for retired or inactive personnel, like the ones stored here. Anything really useful probably isn't kept with them, but is indexed in another file in another location altogether. We already know the top secret stuff is blacked out from these."

"It's the principle of the thing. This is a federal building housing official government documents. Damn near any punk off the street could have gotten in here without any trouble. It only took us a day to scope this place out well enough to break in."

"Well, why… ah!" Blair triumphantly held up one folder. "Got it."

Joining him as Blair flipped through the sheets, Jim scanned the documents over his shoulder, shaking his head almost immediately. "Same as the one Kelso turned up for me when we wondered why the press didn't use my military service to hype up the feeding frenzy over Sid's publicity release. It's right, but not accurate. It's been changed, Chief."

"Your duty in Peru has been so sanitized, it's not hard for me to see the discrepancies, but I think it would take someone pretty familiar with your past to spot them." Slowing his perusal, Blair reflectively tapped the paper. "Bracket bragged when we officially questioned him that he took all your official files from the CIA and whoever as part of his plan to sell you to the highest bidder when he was done with you. We can only hope that dossier is as well hidden as he claimed, maybe even destroyed in the cleanup after his death. Could he be the one that fixed this?"

Without thinking, Jim took the file from him to do a more intense study, and was immediately hit with a fragrance far too complex and detailed to be simply called a smell. It brought to mind images from his years in college, playing on the football team, his time at boot camp, his team in the Rangers before the crash in Peru. Camaraderie, his memories whispered. Team, unity, brotherhood. Brotherhood.

"Not Bracket. Another sentinel has handled this," Jim murmured, holding the paper closer to his face to inhale the scent more deeply. "Not recently, but likely the last person to hold it."

Blair tried unsuccessfully to snatch the folder away from him, stopped only by Jim's upheld hand. Face pale and eyes wide, looking huge because of the black cap covering his curls, he turned his palm up beseechingly. "You were right; it was too easy. This has to be a trap of some sort."

Choosing his words carefully through the bombardment of sensory impressions, Jim said, "It's not like Barnes. There's no madness, no fury or hatred being forced on me. It's... it's welcoming. An invitation, not a demand or taunt."

Curiosity clearly getting the better of him, Blair ran his thumb over the spine of the folder. "A different lure, maybe?"

With a look around the room, Jim considered what he could sense. "This is an insulated, climate-controlled environment; not much in the way of air currents. I can tell that only a few people have moved through here at all in months, if not years. And none of them stopped at this cabinet. The other sentinel has to have known for some time where I am, how to get to me if he felt the need, and he had no reason to anticipate when I'd discover the tampering, if I did at all."

"Point." Blair worried at his lower lip with his teeth for a second, but apparently had to ask. "Can you pick up anything else? Maybe he left a clue behind for you as to who he is in case you did. That is, if you're sure of the, ah, intent behind the trace left for you."

"Not sure; just telling what I'm getting." Despite the clipped tone, Jim examined the file thoroughly, stopping several times when he caught a stronger whiff of scent. "Brother. He keeps tagging that word. And some numbers." He recited them for Blair, along with a few letters that always followed.

Barely able to hold in his excitement, Blair took off for another row in the long lines of cabinets. "That's a code for another file; one a lot older!"

Quickly catching up with him, Jim stopped him from opening the drawer. "Wait. Wait. I won't risk you again. Step over there, just in case."

He pretended not to see the startled glance Blair shot him, or the flare of shy pleasure behind it, still half-ashamed that Blair didn't feel he could take his protection for granted. With Blair's hand on his shoulder, Jim went as deep as he dared under the circumstances as he scrutinized both the cabinet and drawer before gingerly pulling the latter open a fraction to do the same to the inside. Instantly he caught another wash of scent, this one richer, even more intricate.

Fighting off the urge to inhale it like it was oxygen for a man trapped underwater, he slid the drawer all the way out. "Approval." Jim muttered. "Appreciation."

His knees went weak, and he had to lock them to noiselessly suck in a slow breath. "He's not alone. He has a man with him that works with him like you do with me." Jim didn't mention that they were lovers, or that their combined aroma was shockingly one of the most erotic that he'd ever encountered.

"Whoa," Blair breathed. "Safe?"

Nodding grudgingly, Jim hitched to one side so he could join him. Blair produced the correct folder and had it spread out over the tops of the others in a flash. It only took a few peeks at it for Jim to decide that it had been altered the same as his own, but he didn't stop Blair from giving it more exhaustive scrutiny. Unsurprisingly, he reached the same conclusion Jim had; it was cleaned of anything that might hint at a sentinel's abilities.

"Colonel Franklin Albert Conrad. Served in WWII," Blair said, mostly to himself. "Stationed in or near Germany for the rest of his tour after the war ended, apparently as a senior quartermaster. Huh! Travelled a lot for a paper-pusher, didn't he? Spent some time in the hospital, too; more than a mere quartermaster should have. Maybe that was only his official occupation, and not everything he did for the army."

"Doesn't say what he was treated for, which is a sure sign." Thoughtfully, Jim reran the imprint he had of the older sentinel's companion, stubbornly ignoring the tug of arousal in his gut. "I think his partner was a doctor. Maybe that's how they met."

Again caution and inquisitiveness warred with each other on Blair's expression, and he bounced a little uncertainly on the balls of his feet. "Says here that when he retired, he became an antique and curios dealer, very high class clientele, partnered with a Dr. Tyler Moore, MD. Bet Conrad racked up a lot more miles doing that."

"Could be it was cover for more spying, Chief, if that's what you're wondering. Would also explain why the file was kept active for so long after his retirement. The military generally only keeps track of discharges for five years or so, if they worked cov-ops, to make sure they don't turn. Seen enough?"

Reluctantly, it seemed, Blair nodded and tucked the papers back in their cover. "Makes sense he would doctor his own records so no one would have a reason to look twice at him, but why do yours? And why leave a sentinel-only message?"

Without answering, Jim memorized the address of Conrad's business, put everything back the way it was and made sure they left no trace, all the while mulling over what to say. Blair didn't break the silence as they left, though he undoubtedly still had more than a few questions simmering on the tip of his tongue. When they had threaded a few miles through the West Virginia mountains, hopefully just one more leaf-peeping tourist making their way through the area in the eyes of anybody who might have noticed their car, Jim finally spoke up.

"For starters, I think Conrad was protecting someone he believed might be another sentinel, and the sense message was so that man would know who was responsible if he ever discovered what Conrad did."

"Based on what? The visions he left behind for you?" Visibly biting down on the urge to interrogate, Blair leaned toward Jim as if to encourage him to share details, lots of details.

Jim half hid a smile at the show of self-control, inwardly pledging to rag on him about it later, when the situation weren't so serious. "Not visions, really. Like I said - it's not the same as Barnes. It's more like a, a sensory packet that hit me the same way hearing a certain song unexpectedly or tasting a certain flavor can bring on strong associations in anybody. More powerful and precise for me, maybe, and I can't imagine how he managed to construct the messages in the first place."

Jim rubbed a thumb along his forehead, again pushing the whole sentinel thing to one side to just be a detective. "As both a soldier and a cop, it's what I would do in his place. First, hiding any possible information on another person's abilities prevents anyone from questioning his, and as he's been around a lot longer, there has to be a few incidents in his life that other people might remember if another sentinel went public."

Wincing with Blair at yet another reminder of the hell they went through last year because of the original dissertation, Jim peered ahead to look for a place to pull over for the next round of musical license plates he was playing to keep their vehicle as anonymous as possible. "There's also a subtext to a man's official record that lets you know a lot about him personally. Based on the evidence there, I'd have to give credence to the possibility that he's a genuine officer and gentleman. Like me, he'd protect a potential sentinel because it's the right thing to do, if nothing else. And yeah, Chief, I would do the same if I ran into a man serving his country the way he did. I can't bring myself to condemn him just because of Barnes."

"Got that impression of him myself. And immediately started worrying it was wishful thinking on my part." Blair sighed, but then brightened. "Hey, maybe he's never had a Barnes in his life. If he or his partner scrounged for information like I did, he might only have a positive outlook on those of his own kind. Or, or, or maybe he has met another sentinel, a true sentinel. Almost all of his travel was in Europe, but that's just the official stuff. Who knows where else he's been?"

"Are we going to ask him, Chief? Take him up on his invitation and look him up?"

Taking on a deer-in-the-headlight look, Blair rocked back. "You're asking me?"

Deciding on more honesty, rough as it was to voice it, Jim nodded. "If he checks on his own record periodically, just to make sure, he'll know I handled it. That's enough for me. So that makes what we do next your call. We can head back 'cross country, actually do a little of the camping everybody thinks we doing, 'find' the paperwork on your new car here, and get on with life. Or we can put on another set of tags for a black, '94 Crown Victoria that isn't for this particular Ford, but won't be missed for a while, and head for Georgetown."

"You're asking me?" Blair repeated, in a completely different tone.

"Yeah, because much as I don’t want to admit it, I agree with you that your research is valuable. Or did you think I didn't know that you stuck with writing the sentinel diss more because you felt it was important that it exist than because of that piece of sheepskin it could get you? Much as I acted like an ass over the damn thing, much as I hate it, it could save some poor bastard sometime down the road."

Blair stared at him, amusement slowly dawning in his expression. "Here I was thinking we were going to have a fight that lasted for a couple of hundred miles, before you'd finally backtrack for DC, grumping and bitching every inch of the way. Instead you gave all my arguments back to me."

"Bowing to the inevitable saved both the headache and the gas mileage. And it was that or put you out at the nearest town to avoid the non-stop reasoning, cajoling, and obfuscating, which would mean having to explain to Simon why the department's civilian consultant is hitch-hiking back from the other coast. After driving non-stop from Cascade and back again, my ass wouldn't be up to one of his unofficial reprimands."

Jim smirked at Blair's chuckle of sympathetic agreement on all counts, and put on his turn signal for a small road-side park he'd spotted a bit ahead of them. Protected from view by a handy clump of bushes, they debated while he switched plates whether to camp for the night or find a motel room. In the end, the preference to be fresh and well-scrubbed before presenting themselves to strangers won out, and once they hit the interstate, they pulled in at the first likely looking place they saw.

Hours later, sated from the surprisingly good meal from a nearby dinner, Jim lay on his bed staring at the ceiling, not even trying to coax sleep into coming. Every time he closed his eyes, he lived again through that moment of recognizing that Conrad and Moore were lovers, body stirring to arousal against his will. It wasn't as if he'd never had a curious thought or twelve about that sort of sex, especially since meeting Blair. He was the only person Jim had ever seriously considered making a move on, though, and he was fairly sure Blair would have been willing. Evidence indicated he was as open minded about his options in bedroom activities as he was about everything else, and he'd given a few hints that he'd actually tried a few things with other men on occasion.

Regardless, using any number of rationalizations, Jim had put his attraction to him on the back burner to be sort of ignored. But with Conrad's example in front of him, he couldn't help but wonder if maybe he wasn't supposed to be lovers with his… his what, he asked himself suddenly. Bracket had called Blair 'guide,' which almost automatically put Jim against that description. Partner was a given, both officially and unofficially, but he was so much more than that to him. Incacha had named Blair shaman, but even that didn't seem like the right title in regards to his relationship with Jim, given that was a role usually played for the benefit of a group, like Major Crimes. Oddly, or maybe not so much so, that label did fit what Blair did for them.

Frustrated, and well aware he was trying to distract himself from his libido, Jim forced himself to remember step by step how to break down and clean an M-14. It was a cure for insomnia he'd used more than once, and if it didn't put him to sleep, it at least kept him occupied until dawn.

***

Conrad's place of business, The Antiquetarian, was a beautiful old Victorian-style home situated at the edge of a Georgetown neighborhood where many of the houses had been converted to shops. Surrounded by ancient oaks and a wrought iron fence nearly overwhelmed by wisteria, it exuded an air of quiet refinement and dignity. Though it was far more home than he would ever need, Jim liked it on sight, and Blair couldn't wait to get in to see what treasures the three floors held.

Once inside, Jim could see that it had quite the assortment of antiques from all eras and cultures, all presented as if they were in someone's residence. A discreet check showed that even the furniture was on sale, though, and the desk next to the door had a drop safe set into the floor behind it. The woman who greeted them like a hostess was tall, a Valkyrie with iron gray hair and eyes as blue as Blair's.

Oddly certain that Conrad wasn't in the building, and likely hadn't been for a while, Jim stepped up to her for introductions, surprising himself by using his real name. "Good morning. My name is James Ellison; I'm responding to a message Franklin Conrad left for me a while back. Unfortunately, I only got it a few days ago, but as I was in the area, I decided to see if he still wished to speak to me."

The woman considered both of them carefully, but seemed to linger on Blair. Something about the way she studied the distance - or maybe the lack of it - between them seemed significant. Before Jim could bristle, Blair produced his most charming, flatter-the-ladies smile. "And I'm Blair Sandburg. I came along to drool over the antiques and artifacts. My field is anthropology, and I have to tell you, just from where we stand I can see three things that most museums would love to have. I don't suppose I can persuade you to tell me about the provinces on them while Jim and Mr. Conrad talk?"

Smiling slowly, the shopkeeper offered her hand, which they both in turn briefly shook. "Isla Kirkengard, and I'd be delighted to share what I know, a little later perhaps. As I have no customers at present…."

With a little wave, she invited them deeper into the house, leading the way to a man's office in the rear. She turned to face them, back to a large, unlit display case, suddenly solemn. "I'm afraid, though, gentlemen, that Mr. Conrad and Dr. Moore have both passed on, a little over four years ago, within a few hours of each other."

Blair pushed his hair back behind his ears with both hands, suddenly solemn. "Oh, not violently, I hope. After so many years of service, it would be shame to lose them that way. My condolences!"

Again Ms. Kirkengard studied him. "Actually, it was cancer that took Dr. Moore; leukemia and it progressed very quickly. Conrad… the autopsy didn't show a definite cause. As far as anyone could tell, he simply stopped breathing not long after Tyler did." Jim could almost see her make the decision to share more than she normally would. "It happened right here, in the bed they shared on the third floor. It was almost as if Conrad wouldn't let him go on without him."

That felt… right … to Jim; natural, in way he couldn't explain even to himself. He nodded his understanding of the other sentinel's decision, softening Ms. Kirkengard even more.

"Neither had surviving family, and left me the business with the condition that on their behalf I keep certain promises that they had made over the years. I believe that your visit falls under that stipulation." Ms. Kirkengard went to the case, unlocked it, and flipped on the interior light. "He may have left you another message in here. To be honest, I'm mystified by the directives Conrad gave me, but then, he was always fond of his little puzzles and riddles."

"If I may ask, what exactly were those instructions? There could be a clue in there for us, too, since we were expecting a conversation, not a quiz." Despite the request, Blair was inching toward the display as if he couldn’t wait to study the contents.

Frowning in concentration, she said, "As close as I can remember: 'at some point two gentlemen will arrive asking to speak to me because of a message I left for them a few years ago which they only recently received. You will know they are the correct men because you will find their interactions with one another very familiar. Please allow them to examine, as closely as they wish without causing damage, the shaman/warrior garments and artifacts I keep in my office. If they do not arrive by the time you die, there are instructions attached at the base of one of the stands for the allocation of the items. It would please us greatly, Topsy, if your will specifically requested your heirs to follow those directions; the rest of our personal belongings, of course, we leave to your discretion.'

"Conrad gently reminded me on several occasions of his wishes for those particular pieces, as well as including them in a codicil in his will, so I knew it must be very important to him." Unexpectedly, Ms. Kirkengard dimpled. "And he was correct; I do find the way you and Mr. Sandburg interact familiar; the two of you remind me very much of Conrad and Tyler."

That comment caught Blair's attention completely, and he glanced back and forth between himself and Jim as if searching for a tangible clue to her meaning. "Really? In what way? I mean, we work together as partners on the job, and I know that can show to a perceptive person, as you so obviously are, but you mean something else, don't you?"

Mrs. Kirkengard caught and held Jim's gaze. "It was as if each could breathe easier if the other was near. They always were in each other's personal space, and not just the usual way lovers touch and go constantly. Even when they were at odds with one another, they were seldom more than inches apart."

To himself Jim acknowledged that also described his relationship with Blair, though up until now he hadn't let himself do more than notice in passing. Bad things happened when Sandburg was too far away, which he had to be occasionally if he were going to have any personal life at all, which meant Jim kept him close when he could. For Ms. Kirkengard, all he had was a half-sheepish smile, which pleased her immensely.

If Blair noticed the split-second exchange between them, he didn't choose to mention it, but finally gave into the need to get his hands on the artifacts. Mumbling something like, 'yeah, that sounded like partners,' he went to the case, taking a pair of latex gloves out of his pocket.

"I'll leave you gentlemen to it, then. The display case will automatically lock when you close it, as will the office door when you exit. Will you be so kind as to make certain they are secured? I have occasionally had difficulty with riffraff handling our inventory with less than careful, if not outright larcenous, intent." Ms. Kirkengard let herself out, the snick of the latch sounding loudly through the room.

"Soundproofed," Jim muttered, but he turned most of his attention to the fully clothed and decorated mannequins that Blair was inspecting, nose practically touching the closest surface. The first pair was Native Americans, which Jim vaguely thought might be representing a Great Plains nation. A smaller man stood slightly behind but very close to a taller one, who was fully armed. Another set repeating the pose looked as if they were from a South American tribe, likely from Peru, but one Jim couldn't identify. A third pair baffled him; he didn't recognize the women's garb at all, which seemed to consist of tunics, leggings, and plain, if heavy, gold jewelry.

One thing he was positive of, though the sensory feed was so fragile he could have ignored it if he'd wanted to, was that all three standing in front were sentinels. The companion at their back was there for them the same as Blair was there for him, as well as being their lover. The brass plates set behind each couple, just at eye-level, identified them only as a warrior and holy-person of such and such tribe, place and approximate year, but the over-all impression of the display intimated that each shielded his partner, if in different ways.

The heart-knowledge of their existence, though intellectually he'd known it all along, hit Jim hard. These people had gone before him, protecting different peoples, fighting battles different from his own, but protecting and fighting all the same. Their elaborate decorations and high-quality weapons showed that they had been honored in their culture, not freaks to be used and forgotten until needed the next time. Without thinking, he reached for the nearest, reverently stroking the deerskin-covered arm.

"Jim!" Blair gently caught his wrist. "The oils on your fingertips…"

"I know, will damage the material, but I think we're meant to do this right."

Oddly feeling as if he were participating in a ritual, and hell, maybe he was, Jim moved behind him, laying one arm over his so that his palm rested on the back of Blair's hand, and placing the other so that their hands were reversed. He peeled away the gloves, then lifted Blair's fingers to touch on one side as he touched on the other, feeling a cool current move through them. It was weak, so very weak, possibly because the garments were so old, but he caught his breath at it.

"oh. Oh!" Blair went rigid in his arms. "What… I mean, how…?"

Words not his rose to Jim's lips. "Just feel, my brother. Heart, soul, mind - just feel. Close your eyes, quiet your thoughts. You know how to do this."

"Meditate?" Blair asked in baffled exasperation.

"How would I know, Sandburg?" Jim grumped, himself again. Inspiration hit him, and he added, "Reach with all your senses, as if you're trying to be one of them."

Obeying the command he'd voiced, Jim blindly traced along a seam, a fringe, a beaded pattern, finger tips drifting as if blown by the wind. It took a moment for Blair to relax and move with him, but once he did, they bent and stretched together, flowing as one body. Without consciously deciding when, they randomly went from sentinel to companion, from tribe to tribe. Behind his eyelids Jim caught glimpses, hints, tantalizing fragments of six different lives, all sharing much in common despite the great disparity in cultures.

The tang of new, other, not natural broke the shared vision, if vision was what it was, and Jim lifted the torque from the neck of Celtic priestess mannequin. "Beads of super glue," he said, turning the necklace so that Blair could see the tiny, tiny dots. "In a definite design."

"Braille." Pressing a finger pad firmly against the anachronism, Blair stiffened again. "You can remove it with acetone without damaging the gold, and anybody not looking for a message would think it's an accidental splatter."

Taking a pad and pencil out of pocket, Jim eased back as he suspected Blair wanted him to do, already mourning the loss of weight and heat against him. He copied the pattern, a little surprised when Blair knelt to read the note taped almost out of sight behind the center pair of dummies. Though he could have read it himself, he waited for Blair to stand again.

"Conrad seemed to make big deal out of pointing out that tag, but all it does is give the name of a Dr. Donald Mallard, along with a phone number and address." Blair sounded disappointed, that didn't stop him from reciting both to Jim to add to the other clue.

With a last, respectful caress to the shoulder of each person represented, Blair turned off the light and firmly closed the glass door. He stood in front of it a moment, head bowed, and Jim gingerly cupped his elbow, simply to make contact.

"Are we going to talk about it this time?" Blair's tone said that he didn't think they would, but couldn't help but hope.

With his ancestors still with him, and Conrad practically breathing down his neck as an example of what he and Blair could be, Jim forced the truth out. "I want to. I wanted to then. I just don't know what to say, and if I did, how to say it without coming off like a lunatic."

Clearly startled, Blair craned his neck to see Jim's face. "Believe it or not, I get that. I mean, I waited my whole life for an experience like that, like what just happened, and it's nothing like what I expected it to be, and I don't feel anything like I thought I should, and I'm left floundering, and this time I really, really, don't want to push it all aside with a macho joke."

"Not this time," Jim agreed, but grimaced and looked around in concern.

"Just not here, then?"

"They're too close," Jim blurted, instantly wishing he could call the words back. Since that was impossible, he did his best stone imitation, but Blair only nodded.

"Yeah, much as I appreciate their input, that conversation is for us." Blair headed out, pausing by Conrad's desk for a moment to pick up a photograph in an elaborate silver frame.

A middle-sized man, with a medium build and medium coloring, sat with a taller, more slender blond standing behind him, hands resting on his shoulders. Jim didn't need to be told who either was; he already knew them on sight, despite having never laid eyes on either. Even if he hadn't had that arcane knowledge, he would have guessed Conrad was the more nondescript man. Spies of that era often were, and Tyler had the masculine beauty that Jim was beginning to suspect was part and parcel of being a cleric, advisor or whatever to a sentinel.

Blair ran a fingertip along the edge of the frame, somehow conveying a thank you to the pair before putting the picture down and leaving. Jim went after him, but not before bestowing his own gratitude with a hesitant stroke in the same place Blair had touched. There was no echo of a response, though, for once, he would not have minded a spirit's presence.

Tea was waiting for them, and they shared it with Ms. Kirkengard, who kept her promise to share the history of a few of the pieces, letting Blair handle them to his heart's content. She was also more than happy to regal them with a few tales of her former employer's adventures. Franklin Conrad, it appeared, was something of a practical joker, which Tyler suffered with admirable tolerance - until he reached the end of his patience and would abruptly turn the tables on his partner. Jim liked having those bits and pieces of their personality and history, and suspected Blair did as well. It made having such an intimate connection with them so much less like being naked in front of strangers.

By the time they made their farewells, he and Blair were both comfortably settled back into the here and now, and Jim found himself agreeing to a little sight-seeing. While he had no particular desire to play tourist, Blair had an enthusiasm for museums that was rather like a rip current; you got dragged along whether you wanted to go or not.

They reached their car debating the value of zoos, only to pull up short at the sight of a short, skinny man leaning against the hood. His black, greasy hair was thinning on top, but he had it pulled back into a pony tail, anyway, emphasizing his over hung brow and dark, beady eyes. The arrogant confidence in his smirk told Jim the man thought he could handle them, both at once if necessary, and he would not fight fair if it came to that. He was also, to Jim's trained eye, heavily armed.

"Now what did you say to that ancient bitch that caused her to toss her skirts over her head and show you into the inner sanctum?" His uneducated British accent grated on Jim's nerves, despite the almost maniacal cheeriness in it.

"Not that it's any of your business, but she was expecting us." Jim dug his keys out of his pocket, acting as if that was the only thing on his mind.

Blair, typically, returned the jovial greeting with one of his own, and Jim was certain the intruder didn't hear the false note under it. "It was soooo cool. One of Jim's ex-CO's was a friend of Conrad's, and he asked if Toots would ask Jim if he could drop by for a visit sometime to authenticate the Peruvian warrior garb, because, hey, Jim lived with a tribe down there for eighteen months. Since we were in the area on vacation, Jim did just that, and I managed to talk him into bringing me along because I know how to approximate dates on biodegradables if he could tell if the design is correct, and as far as I can tell, those outfits are the real deal."

Obviously bemused, the man said to Jim, "Does he always blather on like that?"

"It's a habit. I treat it like the wind and let it blow on by, which I suggest you do, as well." Jim started to unlock the door, but the ass intercepted Blair when he headed toward the passenger side.

"Now, don't be in such a hurry to be moving on. It wouldn't hurt to spare a mo' of chat with a fellow antique aficionado. I've been looking to buy that lovely lot of regalia, but that dear Ms. Kirkengard won't give me so much as the time 'o day."

"Must be your charming demeanor." Jim stayed loose and easy, playing the game of a big man underestimating a significantly smaller one. He leaned on the roof of the car, hands in plain view, trusting Blair to distract their unwanted company for the second necessary for him to draw his weapon if he turned violent.

"Hey, she made it clear that Conrad's will decreed the display stay as is until her death, to be returned to its original owner at that time. Pity that she couldn't tell us who that was, didn't know herself, apparently lawyer need to know only, one of those closed codicil thingies, I think. Anyway, not that I could afford it, but hey, I could hit the lottery, and then it'd be good to know where the pieces are."

Blair's voice dropped a bit, as if in confidence. "Though I have to tell you I'd probably try to locate the tribe the Native American stuff belongs to; they really should have it back if they wanted it. I'm Blair by the way, and this is Jim, and you haven't told me your name. Love your accent - not Limey, not high-tone English, where are you from?"

"Townsend, George Townsend." He blinked, as if surprised he'd actually answered the question. He muttered, apparently to himself, "Could stand up to a hurricane easier." Louder he added, "And I consider m'self a citizen of the world."

"Really?" Blair beamed at him. "Oh, wow, I'd love to travel that much, but you know, you need to have a skill to offer if you're not independently wealthy, back to the lottery again, but, hey, seeing the art and craftsmanship of different countries and cultures, that's almost as good, not that I usually get to handle pieces like that, museums are great to look, but not so much for touching the exhibits, which was the fantastic thing about the visit here. Even the provinces are like holding a piece of history."

Judging the glaze in the man's eye carefully, Jim inserted into the first pause for breath Blair took, "And exactly why are you so interested in Conrad's private collection? Or is it his office that you really want to examine?"

The look Townsend shot him was beyond dirty, well into black with ire, but he held onto his cheesy grin. "Ah, so that's the way the wind blows in truth, eh?"

Jim just looked back, giving nothing away, and Blair backed off a few steps, feigning shock. "Oh, man, you're not one of those people who think Conrad had more going on for him than charm and a true appreciation for antiquities? He was not a thief."

That, Jim could tell from the sudden spike in Townsend's vitals, was closer to the mark than his own wild shot at what the man wanted. Apparently deciding that games would gain him nothing, Townsend sneered, "Admit it, mate. We're both after the same thing; the location of the Nazi cache that Conrad raided on the sly for decades."

Genuine temper showing, Blair got in Townsend's face. "He would not have ever done that. If, and I do mean if, he found a hoard of valuables taken by the Nazis from their victims, he would have done his best to locate survivors of the original owners. If there were none, he would have put them in a museum, where the world could appreciate them."

"Right." Townsend's laugh was as nasty as the rest of him. "That's his rep, of course. Wonder how many bleedin' fools he bilked dry claimin' he was searching for their missin' pretties? Oh, he gave back enough to make a name for hisself, but it was always the sentimental trash, now wasn't it? Not worth much, relatively speaking."

"Do you have any proof?" Blair demanded. "If not, that's slander, and I won't stand for it. Now, get out of the way."

Before Townsend could push the issue, Jim said in his best commanding officer voice, "Do it." This time when Townsend met his gaze, Jim let the steel in his own show, unsettling the man enough that Blair got by him and into the car, locking the door.

Not hurrying, Jim held Townsend's eyes until he was seated himself. He drove away sedately, almost daring him to make an issue of it. Beside him Blair swore, in several different languages, ending with, 'fucking treasure hunter,' making that expletive sound the most obscene of all. When Blair turned to him, probably to demand they arrest Townsend on some charge or another, Jim derailed him by tugging significantly on his ear, and jabbing a thumb in the direction behind them.

"Listening?" Blair mouthed.

Nodding, Jim said neutrally, "I have heard your opinion on treasure hunters before, Sandburg. In this case, I'd have to agree with you. The big question here is 'how much of a threat is he to Ms. Kirkengard?' He's the sort I can see going after a helpless woman because he's lost patience and only hopes she might know something useful."

"Damn." Blair thought hard, then repeated himself. "Damn. Who do we know local with a badge? I'm hoping FBI, but I'll take a deputy sheriff as long as there's someone with something resembling authority keeping an eye on her. Even a neighborhood watch might help discourage him from doing more than B&E."

"If he does," Jim said grimly for their audience, "He won't get away with it. Want to bet he's on the radar of Interpol, CIA, and maybe a few other not-so-nice international agencies? Wherever he goes, I'll be able to find him through them, and there's no defense against a sniper's bullet."

Checking the rearview, Jim nodded in satisfaction. "That got him. He's dropped the parabolic mic and stopped following us, ranting to himself, though motherfucker seems to be the only word he knows."

"How unsurprising." Blair flopped his head back on the seat. "You think he'll leave her alone, now?"

"Probably, given how much misinformation you spoon fed him. Good move by, the way. He'll assume he's so clever for sifting out anything useful from your chatter that he'll never find the bull, especially since you were truthful with almost all of it, giving him bits that he could check on, like my time in the Army."

"I'm just grateful the first words out of his mouth told us he'd been eavesdropping. Is that when you spotted the listening equipment?"

"Pretty much, though I would have guessed he had it since I could tell that he hasn't been in the Antiquetarian for the past few days, at least. He must have an electronic tag of some sort on the door to Conrad's office to alert him if anyone goes in there." Jim sped up and put Townsend behind him, making note of his car, just in case. "Where to now? The zoo? Or do you want to work on the clue Conrad left for us?

Blair sat up straighter, cheering up a bit. "A visit to the primate compound is just the thing. A few hours of watching the monkeys will remind me that humans haven't been civilized all that long and still need time to evolve beyond the Townsends of our species." His voice changed to something very quiet and controlled, and he turned his head away to look out the side window. "Let's leave that talk until tonight, when we've had time to process it all."

Not liking the tone, Jim exaggerated his wince at the thought of the likely smell of all those beasts in a small area. Blair sang out, "Dial it down," just as Jim chimed in with the same advice for himself. Letting a laugh cover the moment of disquiet for both of them, Jim reached for the directions Ilsa had given them, thinking they should find a motel for the night.

***

Late that afternoon, Jim had the distinct impression that they were being watched as they left the zoo, and quickly scanned the area. It only took a few moments to spot Townsend watching them through binoculars, parabolic in place. He wasn't really surprised; from Townsend's point of view, he and Blair were likely the closest thing to a lead he'd had in forever. It didn't hurt that it took him away from Ilsa Kirkengard until Jim figured out how to put him off that trail, more or less permanently. Maybe he should hint at Conrad's spying, since that was likely the true source of the more suspicious pieces he acquired through his supposed business contacts.

With that in mind, he didn't demure when Blair wanted go to the Keeger Museum. In fact, when the opportunity came up, he suggested taking a bus tour of DC the next day to hit the highlights before deciding which to explore in depth. Not only would that send Townsend off on a wild goose chase as he trailed after them, but if he and Blair discovered another location or person to visit on their own pursuit of untamed waterfowl of modern sentinels and their, their…

Mentally Jim stumbled again over lack of a title or name for what Blair was for him. What he had picked up from the sentinel/holy man artifacts had been nonverbal, or in the language of the native who had worn the items. It seemed important, somehow, that he have a word he could use that encompassed the importance Blair had in his life.

The concern tumbled around the back of his mind for the rest of his day, even as he tagged along with Blair, occasionally feeding him questions to keep the chatter going. Somewhere along the line Blair must have twigged onto what he was doing and likely why, but he went along with the scheme willingly enough, though Jim was positive that there would be a few nice, sharp digs about it in his future.

With his almost scary ability to multitask, Blair maintained his line of patter during dinner, which they had at a truck stop recommended because of its internet ports. Laptop humming, they discussed possible stops for the next day as if that was what they were researching. Within minutes though, Blair made a note and turned it for Jim to see. The Braille letters had been translated to "Come." Below he had written, "To Dr. Mallard?"

It was the logical deduction, given where they had found that name, and Jim inclined his head once in agreement. Excusing himself, he made as if to go to the restroom, but instead found a spot where Townsend couldn't overhear his call. To his surprise, Information informed him the address was invalid, but the phone number put him through to DC's Naval shipyard. Dr. Mallard, apparently, was the M.E. for the NCIS HQ based there. After introducing himself and giving a brief explanation for why he was contacting him, Jim arranged to see him the next afternoon at his office.

He went back to the table, already planning how to give Townsend the slip and arrive at the meeting in a way that Dr. Mallard would stay below the treasure hunter's radar. Ideally Townsend would never realize that he lost them, let alone where, and that was exactly the sort of challenge the Rangers had trained Jim for. Having Blair on his side only made the exercise easier - and far more interesting. It was simple enough to convey the need for the plan without talking about it, thanks to the computer and notepad, and by the end of their meal, they had the overall ploy roughed out.

While DC didn't have an off-season, precisely, for tourists, it wasn't so busy in the fall that it was hard to find a hotel with a room that met Jim's specifications. Townsend had to feel as if he could keep an eye on them and be just within listening range of the surveillance equipment he used. Move far enough into the room, and there would be no way he could overhear anything Jim didn't want him to hear.

Blair seemed to understand intuitively what Jim was looking for, and went readily went along for the ride while he checked out a number of hotels. He finally found one set on the edge of a walking park along the Potomac, blocking Townsend's access on two sides while simultaneously reassuring him during his stakeout they couldn't get past him without being seen. On the assumption he hadn't been able to get into position to listen yet, Jim asked several questions before checking in, taking a room on a floor high enough to frustrate Townsend.

Flopping down on the farthest bed, Blair watched from under half-lowered eyelids while Jim prowled around the space, confirming by listening in on Townsend that they had gotten the parameters right. "Okay, he can always hear us talk, but from where you are, all he's getting is a rumble of sound that cuts in and out."

Wearing a mean grin, Blair said, "Good! I hope he gets so aggravated he breaks his own stuff out of pure irritation. You want to go over the itinerary for tomorrow, just to make sure we're on the same wavelength?"

Shocking the hell out of both of them, Jim said, "No, I want you to know that the only reason I wasn't ready to take that trip with you was because I didn't feel like I deserved it. I'd just gotten you killed, for God's sake, and the reprieve didn't change that, or that she was still out there and would come back sooner or later to finish what she started. You knew - know! - too much about sentinels for a homicidal maniac like her to risk letting you live."

"Then what was that crap on the beach!" Blair's voice held all the pent-up emotion that he'd denied for so long, which Jim honestly believed was a relief to both of them.

"Me being ambushed by my fucking senses again!" Pacing, careful to stay in the safe zone, Jim dragged a hand over his head. "No matter how many times it happens, how well you help me deal or how useful the latest twist turns out to be, I'm always in the deep water trying not to drown until we find bottom, and I can do the right thing.

"Are you telling me, Sandburg, that you never sniffed after the wrong skirt, despite damn well knowing the trouble you were getting into? Well, multiply that by a thousand when you've got sentinel pheromones added to the mix. She damn near had me by the balls, and the only reason she didn't get a solid grip is because of you."

"I get that; I got it at the time, I guess. But you never said, and yes, Jim, I did want to hear you say it out loud." Blair threw a forearm over his face, hiding behind it. "In fact, I think I deserved it."

"And I get that." Sitting down on the edge of Blair's bed, Jim tugged once gently at his ankle. "We speak such different languages. I grew up being told saying you're sorry is showing weakness, that a thank you is a meaningless phrase only thrown out for social purposes. All of which is no news to you, but when you factor in how hard it is for me to talk at all about anything that's not concrete fact, I'm often literally left speechless when I need it most. So I fall back on childhood training to get me through."

"And when it's all said and done, everything back on a nice even keel sense-wise, you can't open your mouth then?" Despite the ire in his tone, Blair didn't move away, but rather let his foot sag closer to Jim's thigh.

"It always seems so damned pointless!" Taking a deep breath to fortify himself, Jim made himself continue. "Hey, sorry about being a total ass, Sandburg. Can't even promise I'll never do it again because, well, the sentinel thing apparently has its own damn set of rules and neither of us has the manual. It's practically guaranteed we'll get blindsided again, sooner or later, like in Conrad's office."

"At least this time the weirdness was nice, more or less. It was at the fountain, too." Now Blair sounded wistful.

"More than, actually."

That got him a peek from out from under Blair's forearm. "Never thought I'd hear you admit that. You always act like the spiritual side of being a sentinel is, I don't know, shameful or maybe distasteful."

"It's walking too close to the edge of sanity for me to be comfortable with it." The admission came out easier than he expected, so Jim tried for a harder one. "But when your spirit animal leaped into mine? For an instant I wasn't alone in the bone bucket that holds my mind, and you fit in there like you fit into the rest of my life. It was best feeling I've ever had, outside of sex."

Sitting up with a sigh, Blair crossed his legs under himself. "Better in a way, because even then you can be so isolated in your own head. Or at least, that happens to me sometimes. Today wasn't as nice, maybe because of the purpose behind the ritual, but…. Ah, man, it was so good to be that much a part of you again."

Suddenly shy, he ducked his head and peered up at Jim through his lashes. "Ever wonder…."

"What it would be like to actually be a part of each other? Yes." As carefully as if approaching some wild thing, Jim cupped the nape of Blair's neck, thumb massaging the tense muscles there.

"No denial, no bluster about your masculinity?" Blair's chin lifted as Jim coaxed him closer with a little pressure in his hold.

For an answer, Jim kissed him full on the mouth, tenderly, with no haste or demand. He finally drew back in the same way, pulling apart only enough to be able meet Blair's dazed eyes. For the life of him, he didn't know what to do next, but found waiting for Blair to decide what he wanted was astonishingly easy.

Blair stared as if trying to pierce through to the place inside Jim that they had shared, spirit-to-spirit, then abruptly stretched up to claim Jim's lips with the kind of passion he had always suspected Blair had. Giving himself over to it, Jim moaned as the full force of the heat and flavor of Blair's mouth hit him low in the gut. With a grumble deep in his throat, Blair scrambled until he was straddling Jim's lap, fingers kneading his shoulders, tongue plunging in to explore and taste.

A loud, unexpected bang of a door against the wall and angry voices jerked Jim out of the sensual wonder that was kissing Blair Sandburg, leaving him unhappily stranded in reality. Jumping, Blair half-turned toward the sound, then buried his face in the curve of Jim's neck. Arms tight around him, Jim rocked them both until their hearts settled and they weren't panting.

"Damn," Blair muttered. "Way to bring me back to the fact that Townsend would be listening to us if we made love."

Unable to stop the grimace at the idea, Jim gave him a squeeze. "I don’t want to wait until the privacy of the loft, though. In fact, I'm all in favor of sneaking out and checking in at the place a few blocks down the road. They had suites with hot tubs in them."

"That is so not helping." Making a show of his unwillingness, Blair climbed off and sat in the desk chair opposite the bed. "Much as sounding like you is scary under the circumstances, we need to think of a way to convince him that Conrad didn't have a hidden stash of treasures before he does something drastic, stupid, or both."

"Which he will, sooner rather than later, given his type." Jim spared a second to listen to the argument practically outside their door, but hotel personnel were already on the way. Letting it slide to deal with more pressing problems, he asked, "Do we drop the search for whatever it is that Conrad wants us to find to concentrate on Townsend? I mean, we're just satisfying our curiosity on that one, aren't we?"

"Does that mean you have an idea on what to do about him or that you've had enough of playing treasure hunter, yourself?" Blair looked amused, thank god.

"Neither - in a hurry to get laid." As he'd hoped, Blair broke up, easing the rest of the hungry tension between them.

When their mutual laughter died down, Jim said more seriously, "How much patience do you think Townsend will have in chasing us around before he wants to get down and dirty?"

"No idea, but in his line of work, it is an asset. Some men search for decades before finding the prize; some never do, but never give up, either." Blair worried at his bottom lip with his teeth, which made Jim want to nibble on it himself.

It took an effort, but he pushed that image away. "We've already made plans for tomorrow. Let's go through with them and see where he is at the end. It'll give us time to come up with an idea on what to do, and a chance to warn Ilsa about him. He's being persistent enough that I think it's warranted. Hopefully, Dr. Mallard knows of her, at least, and he'll be willing to pass on a message to her that she'll pay more attention to than she would to one coming from two relative strangers."

"Should have thought of that before now." Blair reached for his cell. "I've got the number of the shop."

"It's too late; she'll be closed up for the day. I think we weren't taking him seriously enough. I mean, a treasure hunter in Georgetown, spying on a shopkeeper? But now that I think about it, the timing is really suspicious." Jim shook his head at himself, wondering if his cop skills were taking a back seat because the black-ops mindset had risen to the forefront.

"When you say it like that…. On the other hand, is it any more out there than what brought us there?"

"Sandburg, have I ever mentioned how much I hate it when you're right?"

"No, not that you don't make it painfully obvious in a variety of extremely obnoxious ways."

"As many ways as you have of saying 'I told you so? Without once actually uttering the statement?"

"Oh, I have not yet begun to demonstrate the wide range of methods I have acquired to inform my lessers of their lack of foreknowledge. Dibs on the bathroom."

Their usual banter restored, Blair made good his escape to get the last word. Jim ceded the battle, grinning like a fool because it was so like Blair to know what he needed to get back on an even keel. On the other hand, he didn't know how he was going to stay in his own bed all night long; it would be interesting to see how Blair managed that for them.

***

As Jim had hoped, the traffic in the Capitol area of DC was horrendous beyond belief. Once he and Blair boarded the big double-decker bus and got on the way, Townsend wound up trailing after them by nearly half a mile. Undoubtedly he had the tour's itinerary, but as the customers could get back on any bus from the same line making the stop at their current destination, or even stay on the bus to go onto the next, he had no way of knowing where they were at any given time.

Once Jim was positive they'd lost him, more or less, they caught a cab to the shipyard and went through the process of gaining temporary clearance for admittance. Unsurprisingly a marine was assigned to escort them to their destination, not that the gentleman minded playing tour guide on the side. Still, it was a reminder of how important it was to be discreet for Dr. Mallard's sake.

The moment they stepped through the door of NCIS headquarters, though, Jim almost turned on his heel to retreat. The ghost of a mountain cat, tawny and sleek, greeted him in the foyer, silently snarling a challenge. It vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, but Blair must have caught a glimpse of something, either from Jim or the spirit, because he pretended to stumble, forcing Jim to catch him.

Laughingly apologizing to the corporal for his clumsiness, he asked Jim at a level only he could hear, "A sentinel? Here?"

Holding very still, as if allowing Blair to use him for a support post, Jim cycled through all his senses. "Yes…and no," he offered hesitantly, trying to sort meaning from what he picked up. "Not aware of himself? Not… not functioning?" It only took him a moment to whisper the answer in Blair's ear as he set him on his feet.

Still joking with the marine, Blair followed after him, only for the three of them to be intercepted by a man in civilian dress who radiated the authority of an admiral. Mid-height, but in great shape, he was a little past middle-age in Jim's opinion, based on the crow's feet around his eyes and threads of silver in the sandy brown hair. Though his expression was mild, his study of them was intent, giving Jim the impression he saw through their mask of casual interest.

"What do we have here, Corporal Haynes?" he asked genially.

Haynes went to attention as if he had been addressed by a superior officer. "Visitors for Dr. Mallard, Special Agent Gibbs, sir. They were expected and have been cleared."

"Thank you, son. I'll take it from here."

"Oh, that won't be necessary, Jethro."

Jim recognized the cultured English voice instantly as the one that had answered the phone yesterday. Dr. Mallard was about the same height as Blair, nattily dressed, and some years older than Gibbs. That put him as a contemporary for Conrad and Moore, though younger than either would have been now. He also exuded the same air of genteel civility that Ilsa had, which surprised him for some reason.

Acting on some social clue that Jim couldn't begin to imagine, Blair clasped hands with Dr. Mallard instead of shaking. "Blair, my dear boy, it's so good to see you. I have the components of a psychological autopsy waiting for us, and no guests on my table, I promise. I do hope you don't mind working in my lab; you know Mother prefers I not bring my profession home with me."

Before Blair could respond, Dr. Mallard turned to Jim and shook his hand in a brisk, mano-el-mano manner. "You must be Jim, of course. I'm so glad you could join us."

An invisible shiver chased over Jim's nerves at the doctor's touch and the inaudible-to-anyone-but-him emphasis on the word 'join.' Locking down his composure, he managed a polite smile. "My pleasure, Doctor."

Surveying him from head to toe, Dr. Mallard smiled amiably. "I must say, Blair is correct. James is an oddly inappropriate appellation for you, nor does Jimmy fit at all."

Jim heard one of the agents in the room whisper 'Ducky knows these guys?' With that clue, he went with the cover Dr. Mallard was setting up for them. "Most days I'm glad my parents went traditional; I don't think I'd have the panache' to own a nickname like 'Ducky' the way you do."

Chuckling, Dr. Mallard gestured toward the elevators as he began walking. "To be truthful, I believe it was more a matter of graciously bowing to the inevitable than a genuine willingness to embrace it. Of course, at the time of my birth, the famous 'Donald Duck' was hardly known in Britain, nor do I think it would have occurred to Mother to connect the character to a surname with a long, honorable history such as ours. In fact, to this day I am not sure…"

Following him, Jim planted an unobtrusively possessive hand in the small of Blair's back and tuned Dr. Mallard out the same way he occasionally tuned out Blair - listening to the rhythm and pace of the verbal outpouring without truly hearing the content. In fact, Dr. Mallard sounded very like Blair when at his most soothingly talkative, as if he too had the habit of filling in unwanted silences with chatty nothings.

Despite being intrigued by the comparison, Jim used the reflections in the room to keep an eye on Gibbs. He stared after them, the face of a mountain cat flickering over his, looking a good deal less than friendly. At the same time, he seemed fixated on where Jim touched Blair and another emotion entirely flitted over him. It wasn't envy, precisely; more a vague recognition that something precious that had long ago slipped from his own grasp. The last thing Jim saw as the elevator doors closed was Gibbs shifting his stance in a way that told Jim he was still listening.

For that reason, when Blair would have re-directed Dr. Mallard's monologue, Jim gave him a small tap with a finger and microscopic shake of his head. Eyes widening, Blair understood instantly and went back to listening, inserting encouraging noises as needed. Eventually the double doors to the doctor's lab swung shut behind them, and Jim could tell by the change in air pressure that the room was practically airtight.

"There," Dr. Mallard said in satisfaction. "Gibbs won't be able to hear us, now."

"He would have been your sentinel?" Blair's compassion was almost tangible.

"Is that the name you've given to the abilities? In that case, I believe so, yes." Sitting on a rolling work stool, Dr. Mallard's shoulders sagged, though he pulled them back in determination almost instantly. "He was damaged before we met, and even now, though we are dear friends, I have no idea how or why it prevented him from achieving his potential."

Eagerly, Blair sat on the edge of the work bench, hands locked onto the steel at either side of his hips as if to keep them from physically dragging information out of Dr. Mallard. Amused, Jim stepped back to leave them to it, ready to be entertained by dueling enthusiasms. Tongue almost stumbling over itself in his haste to bring Dr. Mallard up to speed with what he knew, Blair started with Burton's manuscript and worked his way up to their visit to DC, hitting only the highlights of his research on sentinels.

He ended by asking, "Dr. Mallard, did you know what Mr. Conrad was capable of?"

Plainly absorbing all that Blair had shared, Dr. Mallard took off his glasses and cleaned them. "Ducky, please, and Ty always took a more medical approach to Conrad's gifts, which does not, of course, preclude tests to establish parameters, such as those you performed. If he did, however, he never mentioned the results. Indeed, we never actually discussed the subject in length at all. On occasion, Conrad would require assistance and I would substitute if, for whatever reason, Ty was temporarily unable to join him."

Jim's wandering attention was yanked back to Dr. Mallard. Like before, the word 'join' had a special tone under it that he was positive Blair didn't hear, and which made his own body almost vibrate in eagerness, like a hunting dog going on point. Clearly neither Blair nor Ducky noticed, but went on with their conversation without him.

"…usually all I could do was distract or restrain him until that time. However, it did seem hearing was Conrad's Achilles' heel, for the most part. While his demonstrated range was quite impressive, he always had difficulty controlling the amount of input he received. At times he was completely overwhelmed by sounds most would be able to ignore effortlessly." Ducky looked into the past, faintly frowning. "I would say that sight is what presents Jethro with the greatest challenge at present, and his hearing is still the most acute of his senses, well beyond the norm."

"With Jim there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to which one will give him grief or when. I usually wind up scrambling to find an effective solution for a specific sense problem. There's evidence to indicate that it's due to the urban environment that Jim functions in on a daily basis. Did Conrad ever spend any significant time living under primitive circumstances?

"Oh, he did indeed. However, neither he nor Ty ever mentioned it as being particularly beneficial or less stressful than their usual lifestyle." Ducky glanced up at the clock. "As I said, we never spoke at length on Conrad's abilities. However, they did give me instructions for this visit, should it occur. Perhaps we should start there, as I expect Jethro will shortly find an excuse to join us."

Even halfway expecting the zap from the word this time, Jim couldn’t stop his reaction to it, and almost didn't want to. Cautiously he opened himself to Ducky, taking in every available nuance of him from scent to sound to sight. Other than noting that there were a number of subtle similarities to Blair, he didn't find any evidence Ducky was deliberately causing the effect in him.

"We could always join you later, for dinner perhaps," Jim said, purposefully using the key word himself to gauge Ducky's reaction.

"While I will not discount the possibility in the future, at the moment I believe your company will considerably complicate matters for me." Though Ducky sounded regretful, he was also very firm. "Now, Conrad wished me to answer your questions as thoroughly as I could, but not to volunteer any facts beyond our shared history. So I am free to confide that I knew them for twenty years before their passing, but not what happened to the copious medical records Ty kept for him."

"Do you know?" Blair asked, apparently out of curiosity.

"Yes."

When Ducky wasn't more forthcoming, Blair grinned, but asked, "Did he want us to find them?"

"Yes?"

"Why?"

"Because those weren't the only documents on 'sentinels' that exist." In an obvious aside, Ducky added, "I do like that description; it fits so well."

"Wow, oh, wow… oh, wait. I probably have most…. No…" Blair got up to pace, hands flying as his brain raced. "They didn't know of Burton's writings, or they would have at least mentioned them to you. What else…." He froze in place, amazement filling his expression. "They knew of other sentinels. Modern sentinels."

"Yes."

"Non-functioning ones, too?" Jim put in, without thinking.

"Yes."

Try as he might, Jim couldn't stop a twitch at the thought of meeting any of them.

Ducky caught him at it, and smiled. "I don't believe it's beyond my bounds to tell you that you have no contemporaries that I am aware of. Indeed, you are the first to attempt to meet Conrad since he set this process in motion, many years ago. I've theorized that there may be only one, fully aware sentinel in each generation, with perhaps a few more in the wings, in case they are needed. Scanty evidence, of course, but Ty thought it a possibility, as well, when I mentioned it to him."

"That would explain why I couldn't find any for so long, and, man, I looked. Damn. Why?" Blair muttered to himself. With visible effort, he brought himself back to the matter at hand. "So these sentinels came before Conrad and Jim?"

"Yes."

Back in motion, Blair tore at his hair at either side of his temple, clearly trying to organize his thoughts to find the right direction to take. "Okay, okay… If I… Hey, if I…"

He stopped in front of Ducky. "Does every sentinel have a companion - not just a partner to watch his back, but someone closer than a mate or brother?"

"Yes. In many cultures, they are also a holy man, shaman, priest. At the very least, they are enlightened beyond the, ah, spiritual norm for their time and place."

"Chief," Jim broke in, before he could spill the next question trembling to get out.

"No, it's important. I know it is." Blair tapped his fingers against his lower lip. "If they had a partner like me, they'd want the knowledge they'd accumulated to be passed on, wouldn't they, just like I do?"

"Yes," Ducky said promptly, though Blair hadn't been addressing him.

With a short bark of laughter, Blair said, "They would have protected it, so it couldn't be used against their successors. That means it had to be hidden, but with clues left for those who could sense them, paired with a person sure to be interested in interpreting them, following them." He put a hand on Ducky's shoulder, waiting until he met his eyes. "You're supposed to point us to the next destination on the path, aren't you? It's a last offering for your friends, and one to the lost potential of the friend you have now."

"Yes." The admission was made softly, sadly, leaving Jim wishing he had some way to awaken Gibbs.

The thought of the man had Jim casting out for him, and he went on alert. "Running out of time, gentlemen. Company is on his way."

"Way to put pressure… I can do this, I can do this." Blair took a deep breath and blurted as fast as he could, "Is there any question that I haven't asked you that I need to have the answer for?"

Ducky beamed a delighted smile at him. "No. You already have all the facts necessary for the next step. All that remains is to join them in logical sequence, and you'll know what to do."

This time he glanced at Jim when he used the key word, doubling the impact and making Jim think he had been instructed to say it often. His reaction to it must have been a side effect of some sort; that or Conrad had coached in to use a certain intonation without telling him why. Clever trick that, and Jim would bet Tyler was actually behind it.

A clear sense of Gibb's approach stopped Jim from commenting, and he whispered, "We need to give him something to satisfy his suspicions, just in case he doesn't believe the cover. Ducky, have you heard of a character named George Townsend? He's some sort of treasure hunter."

"Is that rogue still haunting the Antiquetarian in hopes of finding the whereabouts of a Nazi cache?" Ducky stood and went to a corner's table laid out with a variety of objects that might be found in anyone's home.

"Yes, and we're worried he'll hurt Ms. Kirkengard in hopes of learning something useful." Whispering himself, Blair trailed after him, quickly scanning over the items himself.

"Topsy is more than capable of taking care of herself; she served with the pair of them on a number of their missions. In addition, the house is booby trapped. As she may have mentioned, Conrad did love games and puzzles." Absently shifting a few things around, Ducky held up a plastic cube cut with odd facets. "Still, it may be time for rumor of their agency affiliation to be leaked. That was, after all, the source of many of the more esoteric items Conrad acquired."

"We guessed as much." Jim leaned on the table, assuming a bored air. "He'll be here in a few seconds."

Taking on the manner of a lecturer who had been going at it for a bit, Ducky said at a normal level, "It has proven useful on several occasions; once in the attempt to determine if a young woman's death was suicide or accident. She did not keep a diary, or leave a note, but her personal possessions showed such a verve for life that the insurance adjuster was persuaded her demise was an accident."

"It's not that different from what an anthropologist does, except we usually deal with the entire culture, not the individual." Taking the cube from Ducky, Blair admitted, "I'm not getting much here except the owner had eclectic, even odd tastes."

The door swooped open as Blair spoke, and Gibbs came in carrying several sheets of paper. Jim caught a quick glimpse of the picture from his ID at the department, which give him an idea for making good their escape. Though he had automatically glanced up at Gibb's entrance, he put his attention back on Blair and Ducky, letting the agent make his move.

"And if I told you that he was found deceased, naked, in a nearby national park, for no apparent reason?" Ducky picked up a small, silver orb that chimed as it moved in his hand.

"What time of year and phase of the moon?" Blair asked, trading the cube for an incense burner.

"Ah, excellent question! Your instincts will guide you well, if you allow them. It was the day after the spring equinox."

"He should have good instincts, Ducky. A cop doesn't get far without them," Gibbs put in.

"Not a cop," Blair said cheerfully. "Just work with them. Civilian consultant, part of a new program teaming detectives with professionals in other likely disciplines to expand the scope of available skill sets. The idea is have an outsider's view of departmental workings to offer suggestions and ideas when pursuing tricky or unusual investigations. For instance, having an anthropologist on hand is useful when dealing with immigrants; I often point out cultural pitfalls that might prevent a witness from dealing frankly with the police."

"Not that he has to justify his paycheck to you, Gibbs," Jim half growled.

"No, but maybe the two of you should justify your presence in my house. Especially since you're both off camping in the Cascades, according to your Captain." Gibbs got in Jim's space, posture and attitude screaming alpha male.

More than able to meet him toe-to-toe on that front, Jim straightened, purposefully tightening his jaw so that the muscle there throbbed. Before he could snap out a challenge, Blair put a hand in the crook of his elbow, drawing Jim back and putting himself between them. Ducky came around to stand with them, indignation rising.

Putting up a hand to stop him, Blair said, "We didn't want the people we work with to know where we were for a variety of personal reasons that boils down to the simple fact that 'don't ask,' only works if nobody cares about the answer."

"And now we're going to have to deal with their prurient curiosity, all because a friend asked us to do a favor for him." Jim put an arm around Blair's shoulders and guided him away.

"Thank you, Ducky," Blair called back. "May I call you if I think a psychological autopsy might help with a case?"

"Only if you don't plan use it as evidence in a trial. It's not accepted by most legal professionals at this point." The door shut on Ducky mid-comment, not that stopped him from rounding on Gibbs the moment it was closed.

Hiding a grin, Jim continued to stalk away until they were in the elevator. He and Blair traded high-fives, but Jim held onto his disgruntled act until they found their escort waiting for them patiently in the foyer. By unspoken agreement they went back to being tourists for the rest of the day, picking up their tail again when the tour bus dropped them back at the parking lot for their car. Either Townsend had caught onto the fact they knew he was listening, or he wasn't a great observer. The only thing Jim could be sure of from his muttered commentary was that he was fairly certain he'd been following them, more or less, all along.

Jim had had enough of him, though, and, with the promise that Ilsa was as safe as she could be, saw no reason to continue the charade. It wasn't difficult to set up a traffic situation where Townsend had no choice but to get too close. 'Spotting' him, Jim glowered, then lost him, making it just hard enough that Townsend could blame bad luck instead of Jim's skills. No need to reveal more than necessary for the job, in Jim's opinion. He wanted the man to continue to underestimate him, just in case.

Blair, of course, was completely amused by all the theatrics, but his good humor faded away into anxious anticipation when Jim found a hotel for them. Hiding the car out of habit as much as anything, he took the precaution of asking for a room near the top floor and in the back where they couldn't be overheard with a parabolic. While they rode the elevator, found their room, and settled in for the night, Blair rambled on from subject to subject, practically free associating.

After a distracted decision to call room service for dinner, Jim simply pulled Blair into his arms and hung on until he settled with a sigh and head butt against Jim's breastbone. "Sorry; I don't know why I'm so nervy. It's not like I haven't wanted this for a long time."

"I'd tell you we're not going to do anything, but I'd be lying." Nuzzling Blair's temple, Jim inhaled his scent, relieved that horny was more prevalent than scared. "But we absolutely will not go anywhere you're not ready, willing and eager to go."

Chuckling, Blair wrapped his arms around Jim's waist. "Oh, I want it all, no doubt about it. Some of the fantasies I've had… let's just say that unless you want me to put on a blonde wig, pink panties and sing 'The Good Ship Lollipop,' I'm up for it. I haven't ever done most of it, mind you, but I don't think that'll stop me tonight. It better not stop you."

"We can compare lists later. For now, let's start with the basics." Jim kissed him, sinking into the taste and sensation the way he had always longed to do with a lover, but had never dared. But if not with Blair, then with who? It was every bit as incredible as he'd thought it be, and the fact that it was Blair only made it better for him.

And damn if Blair didn't go there with him, mouth soft and sweet and yielding, making hungry, happy noises that vibrated wonderfully all through Jim. Every thought went away, save the occasional, 'god, that's good, good, good, good' and 'how the hell do I get this off him?' Naked just happened for him, the way it should at least once in a man's life, and he released Blair's lips only so he could find other places on his body to enjoy.

Long before he found all the sweet spots that wrung little cries and aching sighs from him, Jim was addicted to the myriad of tastes and textures that made up Blair. Each was unique to him, changing even as he sampled, shaped by Blair's level of arousal or sensitivity to the type of caress Jim granted him - a feather-light stroke, a careful scratch, a delicate cat lick, a nip of teeth. There were surprises, as well. Blair's nipples weren't especially responsive, but the backs of his knees were, and any touch to his musky center made him whimper.

Despite that, Jim didn't linger at his discoveries; one scent above all others beckoned him with an irresistible siren's song. To his delight, Blair's dick was a double handful of thick strength and lush aroma, adorned with a furry sac that all but begged for the fondling he gave it. He took the sturdy length into himself, a bit clumsily he knew, savoring the smooth glide of it over palate and tongue. Working it into his throat wasn't as difficult as he'd expected, given he'd only ever been on the receiving end of that, but Blair's frantic moans were great incentive.

Jacking the shaft relentlessly as he sucked, Jim drove him toward climax, desperately needing that last, most intimate taste. He would know Blair as no other person on earth could know him, and if he were very lucky, would ever know him. That made holding back his own finish relatively easy, though his hips bucked in sympathetic reaction to Blair's small, jerky thrusts.

When he was finally rewarded with a wail of pleasure and flood of Blair's essence, he gently nursed him through the last, luxurious spasms before abandoning the shrunken organ with a final tender lick. He made his way back up Blair's body, sampling a few of his favorite areas with unhurried thoroughness, ignoring the angry thrum of need beating through his own blood.

After a bit, Blair drifted back to awareness to do a little tasting of his own, slowly turning the tables on Jim until he was the one being lashed with a teasing tongue and relentless fingertips. Except that Blair, being Blair, had to add his own innovation to the experience; in this case it was using his curls as another way to caress. What little control Jim had over himself vanished at the first silky sweep over his nipples, and he could have wept in ecstasy when they flowed around his hardon.

How and when he wound up on his stomach, face buried in a pillow as he clutched fists full of bedding, he had no idea, and didn’t really care. He'd been rimmed a time or two in his life - always done in a hasty, furtive, and all too quick manner that left him thinking it was no big deal. Blair went at his hole like it was a gourmet treat to be relished, even cherished, using the tip of his tongue to trace the fluttering folds before plunging in hard and fast, only to retreat and tease insubstantial circles around the entire pucker.

Jim knew he could come from it, and a part of him wanted to very badly. His heart and instincts, however, had a differing opinion on that. When he couldn't bear the incredible pleasure any longer, he found the willpower to pull his knees under himself to raise his ass in the air.

"Now, Blair. Now. God, I can't wait, have to have you in me… want you, want you…"

Groaning, Blair pulled away to kneel behind him, muttering about lube, leaving a palm on Jim's ass to reassure him while he reached out to fumble in his backpack on the other bed. It only took a moment that felt like an eternity before Blair rubbed a slick finger gently over Jim's opening before carefully breaching it. For the first time, the penetration didn't feel like an invasion, but completion, and he relaxed into it effortlessly, rearing back to ask for more.

"That…" Blair panted, not letting Jim rush him, "..is…so… fucking… hot. Seeing you go after what you want, letting me give it to you…. Damn!"

"Do it! Don't… ahhhhh… that's…. yes!" The two fingers inside him twisted and turned, and god, it was wonderful, but still not enough. He clenched around them as powerfully as he could, and thank whatever, Blair finally broke.

"Gotta, gotta, gotta…." Palming Jim's cheeks open, he put his cock at the entrance and carefully pushed, trembling with the effort not to recklessly plunder.

The slow slide was amazing, and the bit of burn it caused as it forced the tight muscle to give was simply a spice that made it better. Jim felt his release knotting at the base of his spine, knew he couldn't hold off, but tried anyway, wanting to etch this first instance of union into indelible memory. To his astonishment, withdrawal was even better, and he rocked back, hard, just to have it happen again.

That set up a sure, hard rhythm between them that was as easy as if they'd loved this way for always, but still so painfully new that Jim found every stroke a miracle of good. Every nerve in him tightened to an unbearable level, each thrust winding them toward a shattering point that he was desperately eager to reach. He found it abruptly, howling into his pillow as rapture blinded all his senses, save where he held Blair within himself as if to never release him.

Eventually all parts of him reported back in, humming blissfully at the slow fuck his ass was taking. Blair didn't seem in any particular hurry to come, himself. The only clue Jim had to how close he was to his finish was his pounding heart and the soft chant of Jim's name in a wondering tone, which sent Jim back to the slow climb of arousal and need. It was too soon for his dick to do more than twitch in renewed interest, but Jim tightened around the length inside him to make the most of it.

"Damn! Jim…." Blair pried a sweaty hand off Jim's hip to take him in hand. "I… I'm close… don't…"

"Go for it," Jim purred. "It'll leave you nice and relaxed for me to take my turn at getting some ass."

Half-laughing and half-groaning, Blair picked up speed and force, hammering away at Jim in a way that he wished could go on forever. He only got a few minutes of it before Blair froze in place, back arching, to fill him with his seed, but it was enough to bring him to back to full hardness. Waiting until Blair sagged over him, muscles limp, he sank down flat on his stomach, lifting a knee to make room for his hardon.

Blair murmured in loss when he slipped free of Jim's body, but Jim slid to one side, turning so he could take him in his arms, brushing tiny kisses over his face and shoulders. He didn't want to incite him to passion again just yet. Basking in the afterglow sounded good, and he liked the idea of learning what a sated, contented Blair tasted and smelled like.

Different, but damned good was the overall assessment, he decided vaguely, barely aware that he had put Blair under him, nose buried at the curve of neck and shoulder. His skin had changed, too, in some inexplicable way, that made it softer, more satiny, and he shimmied over him, to have as much bare flesh against bare flesh as he could. Murmuring his appreciation of the luscious feel, Jim repeated the movement, ending with a more definite push of dick against dick.

"Do you have any idea," Blair said dreamily, "How incredible it is to see you let go like this? To know I'm the cause? I don't have to be told you haven't ever done it before."

Burrowing in as if he could melt through to bone, Jim mumbled, "Never dared risk it before. Only with you, Blair. Only with you."

"Ahhhh, Jim." Blair wrapped all four limbs around him, planting his bottom firmly against Jim's cock.

Jim chuckled; the randy little scamp was already up and ready to go again, and proved it by shoving an opened mini-tube of KY into Jim's hand. Taking it, he managed to somehow squeeze a generous dollop onto his fingers before curving his palm around one of Blair's ass cheeks. He took his time testing the readiness of the tight aperture, vaguely amazed by how hot Blair was in there.

Waiting until Blair was aggressively fucking himself onto the invaders in his hole, Jim shifted until he had Blair's legs over his shoulders, shoulders planted on the bed. It gave him a view that would have made him shot if he hadn't already blunted the edge of lust. Something in his head clicked into satisfaction. Sight had not really had it's due, so far, and it was necessary to add it to the mix, though Jim already had Blair committed to that sense memory for the most part.

The rare peek of a downy backside or full package was nothing compared to the visual feast spread out in front of him, however. As he gingerly fit the crown of his dick at Blair's opening, he flicked his vision back and forth between that miraculous spectacle and the equally beautiful one of Blair's face surrounded by a corona of hair spilling over the pillow case. The joy in his expression, the intensity in his eyes, was more fuel to Jim's excitement, and he had to drop his gaze before it sent him out of control.

"Wish I could see what you see right now," Blair murmured, pressing up as Jim pressed in. "I loved watching me fill you."

"Voyeur," Jim lovingly accused. "Another time I'll see what I can do about arranging for you to have….aaaahhhhh… a view. God, Blair. Hot, hot, hot… tight."

"Mmmmmm." With a little wiggle, Blair settled Jim more perfectly into alignment with him. "Hurts, but not a bad hurt… kinda…. Oh!"

He reached down to explore where they were joined, and Jim forcibly held himself still to let him satisfy whatever need drove him. "Pull out now, okay? Nice and slow."

"Gonna… kill… me…" Jim huffed out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and did his best comply with the command. "Pushy… bottom…"

"Love… me… damn, damn! anyway."

"Damn straight. Now, Chief! Now!"

"Yes, yes, yes!"

Finding the right pace, the right amount of strength, they moved together, not to find release, but to be together, as completely as possible, as long as possible. For an immeasurable now, there was only sensation for them, and an awareness of each other that went beyond the five senses. The same breath sustained both, the same heartbeat drove them, and finally, despite all they could do to hold it off, the same need finally consumed them.

Their lovemaking turned rugged and demanding, bodies straining to get ever closer to the ecstasy that lay one more thrust away, one more cry of pleasure beyond the one being voiced. It was with as much regret as relief that climax surged through their union, dissolving them back into individual bodies shuddering with joy. They held on tightly to one another as the bliss faded back to reality, but the memory was there to be savored, along with the promise of renewed passion when flesh and bone would allow it.

It took the rumble of their stomachs to persuade them to untangle and see to dinner, and even then only because of Blair's joking comment it would give them more energy for later. He indulged both himself and Jim with steaks, baked potatoes, and salad with unhealthy amounts of dressing, though he didn't spare the description of what it would do for their arteries. He kept up that monologue even when he was in the shower cleaning up before the food was delivered, but Jim hardly heard him. A passing complaint on why hotels always had water and shower controls that required an engineering degree to figure out, had Jim brooding over Ducky's statement they already had all the facts they needed to continue their search.

He wasn't exactly sure why they were searching, except that it was important to Blair, or when a cautionary check on his service records had turned into a quest of some sort. Regardless, Jim found himself jotting down case notes on everything that had happened in the past forty-eight hours, trying to get the details organized in his own head. Blair came in, still drying off, as he was finishing and read over his shoulder for a moment.

"Put in the sense information, too," Blair murmured, leaning on Jim's back.

Distracted by the bare skin, Jim did as suggested. 'Scent, brother - touch, come - hearing, join.'

"Wait, wait, what do you mean by the last?" With a scholar's care, Blair tapped a damp finger near the edge of the paper where Jim had listed that tidbit, leaving his arm resting on Jim's torso.

Struggling to keep his mind on topic, Jim quickly briefed him on his unexpected response to Ducky's use of that particular word. "At the time I thought it was because he was making sure we knew we had to line up the clues, join them, as opposed to arranging them to fit together, like you would in a puzzle. When you look at it that way, they read 'Brother come join,' and the logical way to end the phrase is 'us.' Which could be what he meant by already having what we need."

"And we'll find it through sight or taste."

"Sight." At Blair's surprised glance, he groped for the right way to explain a line of reasoning that was based mostly intuition. "Taste is too intimate. Yeah, it has its uses for the job, but as far as I'm concerned, the most important thing about it is how it connects me with you." The brilliant smile Blair flashed him encouraged him to keep going. "That may not have been why the sense evolved in sentinels along with the others, but that's what we did, do, or what I did.… " Aware he sounded like an idiot, Jim choked off the rest of it and started rise to take his own shower.

By the simple expedient of resting his weight on him, Blair held him in place. "I get it, and it makes perfect sense to me. It's hardly the only example I can recall of humans adapting physical characteristics to culture instead of the other way around."

Relaxing, Jim kissed the biceps draped across his chest. "Not that the clue is very helpful, as far as I'm concerned."

"Let me think on it for a while. You go clean up; the meal should be here soon." Settling into Jim's place as he did as suggested, Blair added a few notations of his own, brow creased in concentration.

The torrent of hot water felt good, amazing actually, on Jim's sensitized skin, and he was half-aroused when he toweled down. Even shaving wasn't as annoying as usual, and he grinned at his reflection in the mirror because of why he was shaving before going to bed. He went back out to the bedroom in time to see Blair lean back in his chair, wagging the pen between his fingers.

Without looking at Jim, he said, "Every lead, every hint has been right out in the open where anybody could find it. But the only person who could understand it was a sentinel. That's important."

Leaning against the window frame, Jim considered the ramifications of that possibility. "So the documents we're looking for are located where you'd expect to find historical records, but only I can see them for what they really are? Where would we look around here for that kind of thing?"

"We're in DC. Where couldn't you find valuable manuscripts?" Blair said with a trace of humor. "Library of Congress comes to mind first, but they do extremely detailed cataloging; that's the whole point for its existence. We can visit, anyway, see if you spot something unique, but frankly, the next clue doesn't have to be actual documents; just a hint to lead us to them."

"Doesn't have to be that valuable, either," Jim pointed out. "Just historically significant, maybe, like, I don't know, Ben Franklin's journals?"

"There are a number of collections like that which are open to the public. We'd need some way to eliminate all but the most probable." Blair underlined the phrase 'brother, come, join,' then tapped on the first word. "All of these are double purpose. Brother was to connect you to Conrad, but it also led you to his name and business address."

"Come meant to literally come to Ducky, join was for the clues. 'Us?' No living sentinels, supposedly, so not referring to specific people. Huh! As opposed to all people?" Mulling it over, Jim suddenly said, "Maybe not just 'us' but 'U.S.' as in the United States? Aside from the Library of Congress, where would you look for the most widely assorted but directly related collection of artifacts for the United States?"

"The Smithsonian," Blair said promptly. "But Jim, that's over a dozen buildings, not to mention…." He trailed off, gaze turning inward. "…two or three sculpture gardens. Sculpture, the only physical art form meant to be seen from all sides; you could have called the mannequins in Conrad's office a kind of sculpture, too. And gardens invoke all the senses, even taste, if it's an herb garden, especially the sort popular in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries. The Smith didn't have one when I did my internship there when I was fifteen, but I haven't kept up on additions or improvements in recent years."

"You worked for the Smithsonian? That young?"

Blushing, Blair admitted, "It was a summer job, really. Mom set it up for me with a friend who had a son about my age. Man, talk about a fantastic time! Did you know that the Smith has tons and tons of pieces in storage? A lot's never been on display or even properly catalogued, and I think I did my best to search every last basement, back room, and closet looking for stuff."

Utterly charmed by the glimpse of budding anthropologist, Jim encouraged him to talk about that time, laughing with him at the eagerness to explore that got him in so much trouble. Their food arrived, and their reminiscing continued while they ate, each taking their turn at describing disastrous jobs. If Jim's were more traditional - paperboy and a week in the mailroom at his dad's business - his also created the worst messes. He had Blair literally rolling on the floor by solemnly informing him that his brief stint in the business world resulted in three arrests and a divorce.

Blair, of course, beat him hands down at variety and oddity, to the point Jim teased him about making some of them up. (No, seriously, that cockatiel was impossibly cranky, but liked me for some reason, so when his trainer was sick, who else could they use to get it to do its tricks for the commercial?) From there the conversation rambled onto other personal tidbits and confessions, hardly interrupted by the game they put on the TV, which they semi-watched cuddled on the bed after the dishes were cleared.

They both nodded off at some point, barely waking long enough to turn off the set and get under the blankets. Sometime in the middle of the night, they simply turned to each other for slow, drowsy lovemaking that coasted from euphoria back into sleep. To Jim's surprise, morning came with neither of them in a hurry to start the day or in any particular rush to solve Conrad's riddle.

After a leisurely brunch at a nearby chain restaurant, they drove to the Smithsonian and ambled through the exhibits, taking turns choosing either an old favorite of Blair's or one Jim was curious about himself. Fascinating as he found many of the displays, he couldn't help but look at each setup from a cop's point of view, pinpointing the security measures and quietly critiquing them. Because of that, he noticed a well-dressed man whose attitude screamed pompous and over-bearing bustle importantly through various security checkpoints in different buildings without being screened by the guards.

"Bad precedent," Jim said, nodding at the stranger as he sailed past a keyed turnstile, putting in what had to be an over-ride - probably an idiot-proof one created specifically for him since it was an 'x' punched in from left to right, right to left across the pad. "Someday he'll walk out with a nice little package of pricy goodies, and security won't even blink."

Blair watched the man go through into a hallway marked 'authorized personnel only' and frowned. "I know that area; there's a vault back there for cleaning and authenticating. Unless you've got a Ph.D. or the equivalent experience, you shouldn't be in there; it's damn near a sterile environment for obvious reasons."

Shamelessly eavesdropping on an irritated explanation between the two guards pointedly snubbed by the man, Jim repeated for Blair's sake, "… asshole treats us like scum and thinks rules are for everybody but him, and the head honchos let him get away with it because of his society connections and success at fundraisers. Not like he's got money, just an old name and lots and lots of pull. God what wouldn't I give to see him get his."

"I know the type," Blair turned away, mouth a grim line, apparently done with his sightseeing for now. "A bully and name dropper who really does enjoy getting people fired, so you either take it from him or quit on your own."

Well aware that he'd stirred up unhappy memories hardly healed by the work they'd done to clear his name, Jim encircled Blair's upper arm in a loose grip and squeezed reassuringly. Blair sent a small smile over his shoulder, but still led the way out to the nearest sculpture garden. "Let's see if can find what's right out in plain sight for everybody to see."

At Blair's suggestion, they ambled aimlessly, all but letting the wind blow them from place to place. As enjoyable as it was for a cool, sunny mid-autumn's day, nothing really caught Jim's eye except the beauty of several pieces of art. Blair argued that might be significant, but Jim thought it was too much a matter of personal taste in each instance. The work was good, but didn't appeal to him beyond his usual preferences. In fact, he was willing to state unequivocally that Blair's wild mane of hair, shimmering and swaying in the sunshine was the most gorgeous thing he'd seen in his life, let alone that day.

Blair took the compliment with a surprising blush and more surprising nudge for Jim to get serious. With a sigh, Jim did as told, literally turning in a small circle to see if anything really caught his attention. In was an unexpected drift of fragrance, mixed with the low tones of several sets of exquisitely tuned wind chimes that finally pulled him away from his idle bemusement to almost cat-like interest. Absently moving in the direction the sound came from, he caught Blair by the hand and pulled him along.

"There, see the crowns of those trees over there? I don't know what species they are, but they're growing intertwined, practically from one trunk." Jim skirted a hedge that separated the main garden from a small alcove made of stone on two sides and various tall bushes on the other two. A small bench was set under the low-hanging branches, and anyone sitting there would be well-shielded from view of other people in the garden, making it the perfect place for a lover's assignation.

"Lover's trees," Blair said with growing excitement. "You cut one away and the other dies. Most trees won't share resources with a species outside of its own. This kind of co-growth is rare, very rare. An expert gardener must have set them up and maintained them with painstaking care."

Kneeling, Jim brushed debris away from a weathered plaque that said only, "In Memory Of." The action caused a fresh release of a faint scent, meaning the trees were so old, the oil from their blossoms had permeated the soil to a level where even Blair could catch a whiff of their aroma.

Examining a limb, Blair said, "Four senses engaged; chimes for sound, smell, touch because of the different types of bark and the thorns on this one, and sight because the mix of texture and shape is beautiful. Wish I could see them in bloom. Want to bet this niche was established by a special bequest, and is tended due to a very rich trust helping to support the museum?"

Absently, Jim shook his head. "No takers. There's something else here, Chief. I can barely…" Moving cautiously, he reached into the dense growth, fingers finding an engraving of the US seal that he could only see because of the faint gleam of polished stone framing it. A change of temperature and pressure around his hand coaxed him into squeezing past the trees and into a man-sized gap between them and a building next to the trysting site. Blair slid through with him on a sound of appreciation for the feeling of seclusion and privacy the tiny recess provided.

Stooping to touch the dense mulch under foot, Blair murmured, "What a great place for making love - that is, if you don't mind the risk of being outside without any walls for protection. Wonder if it still gets used?"

"Not for a very long time, I think, and it's likely that sex wasn't the only thing this was meant to conceal."

Eyes on the wall, Jim probed around the engraving, feeling it shift minutely under his fingertips, as if the stone were wearing away from its anchor. Nothing happened, though he could hear a very faint click a few feet away. Trusting the 'in plain sight' clue, he moved in that direction to discover an ancient wooden door banded with thick iron reinforcements. It had a door knob that looked rusted beyond use and a try at turning it proved the appearance was the truth. Regardless, Jim was certain this was a way in, and he frowned as he tugged on the handle to test the door itself. The was only a hint of give, but not toward him.

"Try now," Blair suggested. He had his palm on the engraving, pressing enough to make the click sound again.

On impulse Jim did, but pulled sideways, as if it were a patio door. It slid smoothly to the left, revealing another, more modern door behind it. An electronic buzz warned him that it was alarmed, but he keyed in Moore's name with a surety that would have startled him only a few days before.

"Cool." Blair carefully leaned over the threshold, not trusting as yet that it wasn't a trap of one sort or another. A border of small windows topped the twenty foot walls of a space about eighteen by eighteen feet, letting in enough natural light that he didn't have any difficulty locating a light switch. He flipped in on, and later Jim would wonder if any power on earth could have stopped him from all but leaping into the room.

Following more slowly to be sure they could get out once the doors shut behind them, Jim gaped at the neat rows of shelves filled with books and antiques so well maintained they looked new. Many of them were weapons: crossbow, Bowie knife, English long bow, flintlock pistols, and Henry rifle among others. Others were personal items such as could have been found in the home of any man of that era: a snuff box, meerschaum pipe, gold pocket watch with chain, silver inkwell.

It was the books Blair went for first, of course, fingers hovering over the spine of the closest as if not yet daring to touch. Giving him his moment to glory in their discovery, Jim sat at the big desk that dominated the middle of the room, too worn by too many shocks over the past few days to be startled by the envelope with his name on it, weighed down by a small gold bar with the emblem of the Third Reich stamped into it.

"We were expected, Chief," he announced, holding it up so the handwriting could be seen.

Bounding over to perch on the edge of the desk, Blair demanded, "Well, open it!"

Hiding a grin, Jim obeyed and pulled out several sheets of paper. The topmost was a copy of a document so old, he couldn't understand the writing, though the words were clearly a form of English. The next page seemed to be a translation. Without prompting, he read it aloud.

"We have dreamed of times and places and peoples where our gifts are welcomed, nurtured, cherished. We have visions of lands where we do not hide from despots and self-serving nobles who would enslave us; where we do not fear the inquisitor and the witch hunter. Those who could, went to seek out the source of their dreams; most never returned. Those who did, spoke of freedoms we who remained cannot conceive of attaining as matters stand.

"We who must abide as we are sought to build toward a time and a place and a people where we could be as we were meant to be. We began by collecting together myth and tale, all but forgotten histories, and personal accounts of those who bear the burden of the gifts. Our lore we guarded close, granted only to our brethren and their companions, lest it be used against us and all those who follow.

"We tell you now, Brother, that this task has fallen upon you: to protect the tribe that will be by protecting the knowledge gathered here, only to be shared by all with the gifts of the watchman, guardian, keeper, protector, sentinel. We cannot and will not compel. We can only ask, and pray that wisdom guides you to do what is right. God's Blessings and Mercies upon you."

"My, god, my, god, my, god." Blair took the paper from him as if it were the original, handling it by the edges and delicately placing it on the desk.

The last sheet was a brief note from Conrad. "My predecessor began copying the various journals and letters so the originals could be left here in a protected environment. I continued the practice and advise that you take only the duplicates for study. Also, it will eliminate a portion of the risk of discovery created by each visit to this location by reducing the number of them. Take the gold with you. If events have proceeded as I have attempted to arrange, you will need it. The only other advice I will burden you with is to trust your companion to know what to do. I have noted that while our mates often follow the path of the scholar or scientist, they have more than a bit of the fey in them, as well, and that has saved our collective asses more often than I am comfortable admitting."

Folding the note and putting it back in the envelope, Jim carefully placed it just so beside the older letters. He had no idea how he felt or what he wanted to do with the enormity of what they had discovered. No, he corrected himself automatically. What they had been led to. That acknowledgment did nothing to lessen the sheer impact of learning of a legacy that stretched back for generations.

Blair, of course, had a different problem. "Man, I don't even know where to start. With the beginning and work my way to the present, or reverse back to the start? Search for an index? I mean somebody would have catalogued everything, right?"

Normality settled over Jim like a warm, comfortable coat, and he sat back in the chair. "I wonder how many of the artifacts will resonate like the regalia in Conrad's office?"

Jaw dropping, Blair slowly wheeled to stare at him. "You want… us? Should we?"

"It's another part of the legacy, isn't it?" He waited a heartbeat and grinned at the slow dawn of greedy anticipation in Blair's expression.

In the end, though, Blair admitted that he hadn't processed the first experience well enough to be ready to take on more just yet. Besides he wanted to return with his laptop, a portable scanner, and external backup drive to record everything. Talking more to himself than Jim about encryption programs and data self-destructs to protect it, he meandered around the room, touching the backs of the journals and lifting the special boxes holding letters, but making no effort to read as yet. Jim had no doubt Blair's restraint was due to knowing that when he started, he wouldn't willingly stop until he dropped from exhaustion, and they weren't prepared for a stint like that.

Jim let him ramble on, making plans of his own for the future. Obviously they were going to have to become members in good standing of the institute, and to the degree that no one would think it unusual for them to visit frequently, talking to everyone about everything. It was the only way to keep track of things like planned renovations and repairs in order to make sure nothing came too close to the vault. That meant he needed to identify what lay on the other side of all four walls and the ceiling, as well as locate the emergency exit. The place was created by sentinels after all; they would have left a back door.

Eventually, by some unspoken accord, they moved to leave, taking nothing with them this time save the gold bar Conrad had left and mental lists of what had to be done in the future. The moment the outside door closed behind them, though, Jim froze in place. The alcove sheltering the lover's trees was occupied, and it only took him a moment to spot Townsend loitering at the entrance, hand in his jacket pocket to hide a pistol. There was no easy way out except past him, yet he could hold them at gun point without being seen by other people enjoying the sculpture garden.

Blair waited patiently while Jim sized up the situation and nodded his understanding at the whispered explanation. Before Jim could offer a plan for their next move, he murmured, "I think I know what to do. Unfortunately, this time divide and conquer is our best bet. I'll lead him on until you can take him down."

Not giving Jim a chance to debate, he bent down to scoop up a handful of dirt and mulch, taking out the gold bar to scrub it down with the debris. Sliding along the wall until he reached the corner where it met the hedges, Blair backed out into the open, ostentatiously struggling with the greenery. Once free, he shook the bar to clear it of the dirt he'd used on it, releasing the leftover from his fist as if he'd just dug it out of the ground. From his position, Jim could tell that Townsend could see Blair, but he couldn't see Townsend unless he took several steps toward the exit.

Though he spoke softly, Blair pitched his voice so that it carried clearly. "And I'm telling you it's part of the ruse; we don't have to dig. The real clue is in the rocks we moved to get to it. I know exactly where to go, now, and we're going to need that specialized electronic lock reader we got."

Taking his cue, Jim fought his way out of the bushes and snorted in disgust. "You're sure this time that it's the end of the trail? 'Cause I'm getting sick of chasing after Conrad's sly tricks and cutesy hints."

"Just be grateful he left them. Thank God he didn't have any kids or family. His ego made him need to have somebody to show off how clever he was, and he obviously didn't care who it was, as long as they played his game. It was pure luck that I stumbled over the trail."

"I did, you mean," Jim grumbled. "Yeah, yeah, I know I wouldn't have gotten anywhere without you. No reason to get uppity about it. So we run get the reader and make it back here for shift change for the guards."

Biting his lower lip, Blair pretended to be thinking, turning the bar over and over in his hands. "First we need to scope out that wing to make sure there he didn't leave any more traps, or that the security there hasn't been changed for some damn reason or the other. We might need more than the reader. We'll have to wait until tomorrow night."

"You're kidding me!"

"I wish; I'm in as much of a hurry to be done as you are. But shift change is the best chance to get past the guards, and that last booby-trap almost killed us; would have if we hadn't been prepared. No way am I going in blind."

Making a show of reluctance, Jim said, "We could split up. I do the recon, you get the reader."

"I don't know…." Blair played the tone perfectly - a little suspicious, but willing to be convinced.

Playing along, Jim shrugged. "Hey, I've learned the hard way not to go solo on this. And if you're worried about me skipping, we'll both have a critical piece needed to take the next step."

After a minute of apparently thinking it through, Blair nodded. "Okay, but I think you should get the reader. DC traffic is hell, you're the better driver, and I'm the better bullshitter if I get caught being nosy in the wrong place."

It was Jim's turn to act a bit suspicious, but finally he barked out, "We'll meet at the main entrance, half hour before closing."

As expected, he didn't catch sight of Townsend as he trotted away, aiming for the parking lot. The only question at this point, as far as Jim was concerned, was whether or not the man would wait until Blair 'found' the treasure, or if he would take him at gunpoint now to be certain his prey didn't get away again. Jim came down on the side of not being able to hold off with the goal so close at hand, and even as he was circling back around, Townsend made his move.

"Who's the treasure hunter now?" Townsend sneered.

"I have no…" Blair began.

"Oh, don't give me the act. I'll just take that bit of shiny you have there, then you can lead me to the rest." Townsend sounded amused, cocky even, but Jim could all but smell the greed pouring off him.

Equally amused, Blair half-laughed, "Oh, you're still not chasing that supposed Nazi cache, are you? God, how dense can you be?"

"What's this then? A bit of trinket from the gift shop?"

"Subterfuge, the magician's assistant wiggling her pretty assets so you don't notice what he's doing."

Despite it all, Jim couldn't help a snort of humor. Like what you're doing, Chief?

Apparently something in Townsend's expression must have turned ugly, because Blair's tone went flat. "You've chased all over Europe, haven't you, checking and double checking every single source, every acquaintance and business connection, and not found a single, solid piece of evidence. Because Conrad always came back with his finds, it never occurred to you that he might have had them with him when he left, did it? Why keep his hoard overseas, where someone else might find it? Or where the political climate might change radically enough that he could never get back to it again? Why risk sneaking it out a piece at a time, instead of all at once?"

"You're telling me the bloody buggerer had it here all the while?" Townsend sounded positively dumbfounded, in Jim's opinion. Not that he could blame him. He had no idea where Blair was going with his ploy either, not that he didn't trust him completely to pull the rabbit out of his hat.

"And that was just the first wrong turn you made."

"Let me guess, you're going to tell me the next one, just to rub my face in your cleverness. Go ahead. Gloat. All the way to where Conrad hid his treasure."

"Sure, why not? You can't get to it yet, and neither can I, so I might as well rather than have you do something… impulsive. And sooner or later my partner will be back; he's not overly impressed by guns." Blair led the way out of the lover's niche, all but bouncing, blatantly ignoring Townsend's burning stare. "Tell me why you think it's a Nazi cache, which doesn't make any sense if you buy at all into Conrad's reputation. And you have to on some level, at least, because it wouldn't be so good without some basis in reality."

Though Jim could see the admission was pained, Townsend made it. "Because his specialty was locating family treasures lost during the war and communist reconstruction. Which is just so fucking obvious, isn't it?"

Walking with him as if they were chums, Blair beamed at him. "Got it. Next step should be easy, because you learned everything you could about Conrad, didn't you?"

"Man was mad about history," Townsend said promptly. "Ancient wars, ancient battles, ancient soldiers. Could always count on him providing a bit of the ready for…" He came to a dead stop as he trailed off, staring wildly around the Mall, forcing Jim to take cover in a group of tourists loading onto a bus. "Almost lived here, he did. Helpin' plan exhibits, arranging for artifacts to come in on loan, settin' up the displays - very hands on, he was, and so very friendly with the natives…"

Townsend grabbed Blair by the arm and yanked him in so they were face-to-face. It took an effort of will, but Jim clenched his jaw hard and let Blair run his play. "It's here? Right here?"

"Hey, easy man, easy." Blair patted at his chest, reassuringly, not incidentally blocking the hand with the gun so that it was aimed into the ground. "Yeah, I think so. I think he found Ethan Hathfield's study."

"Wot?"

Pulling him into motion rather than attracting the attention of the many sightseers milling about, Blair shrugged. "I interned at the Smith a long time ago, and that story is like, part of the local folklore, like Lincoln haunting the White House."

At some impatient sound or look that Jim didn't catch, Blair hurriedly explained. "Look, you know that a couple hundred years or so back, lots of the artifacts in any museum weren't really considered that valuable. They were just curiosities, souvenirs, the castoffs of really wealthy people who didn't want to throw them in the trash for whatever reason. Letting the lower classes gawk at them as examples of places and societies they'd never see let the owners came off as magnanimous while getting rid of that 'simply awful stuffed elephant Philip insisted on shipping home.' It was such a fad for a while that the Smith still has unopened boxes of donations that prominent patrons left to them decades ago."

Even knowing Blair as well as he did, Jim couldn't be sure where the truth was in that line of bullshit, if there was any at all. Townsend was as flummoxed, but not so deep in it yet that he didn't have a sharp question or two. "And this has what to do with some bloke's study?"

"Hathfield was a curator here nearly a hundred years ago, and he suffered from OCD in the form of hoarding. He was the one who started the practice of never refusing donations until they'd been vetted by experts, which created a huge backlog. He had the habit of rummaging through boxes and whenever something caught his eye, he'd take it with him back to his study for his own perusal. Later, when his assistants were insistent about returning them to their proper places, he got annoyed and supposedly set up a second study, a hidden one, where he could keep the various odds and ends that he'd picked up without being harassed about it. You can find references to missing objects in the notes of other associates - including things like a collection of scrimshaw done on whole narwhal horns and a 'simply dreadful looking' ruby necklace, weighing in at over five pounds of gold chain and gemstones."

Turning skeptical, Townsend sneered, "Let me guess, everybody knows about the study but no one has ever found any proof it exists."

"Like I said, part of the local mythos, and yeah, to this day you'll see some young intern with a measuring tape sneaking around looking for a hidden room. Once upon a time, it was me, even. Because of that, I laughed off the first clue that Jim found, thinking he was having one over on me."

"Why leave one at all? And if there is a stash, Conrad probably picked it clean by now."

"Too smart for that. If he flooded the market with unique objet d'art, it would raise too many questions and maybe attract the attention of ruthless people willing to torture for information." Blair grinned at him, not so nicely. "Remind you of anyone? But if you trade the right thing to the right person in exchange for something you're supposed to be searching for…. Get it? A steady, comfortable, explainable income that doesn't raise any eyebrows and gives you an impeccable social standing."

Blair shrugged. "As to why he'd deliberately leave a trail? Maybe because he had no heirs to brag to. Maybe because whoever gave him the first clue made him promise to leave one himself. Maybe because it amused him to see how clever he could be, because, I gotta tell you, none of this has been easy."

Coming to a stop at the foot of the stairs into a building, Blair checked his watch. "Okay, according to our information, the guards change shift just before closing, with each set doing a routine sweep, one as they're coming off, one as they're coming on. They only cover the tourist accessible areas on that go round, trusting the secured locations to the men on the surveillance cameras. If you juggle it right, you can get past both by knowing who is looking where, when. That's what I need Jim for."

"Not anymore."

"So you're a security expert now?"

Townsend grimaced at that. "So you're goin' in there, bold as brass, to look for a door nobody can find."

"One good thing about the story - the guards almost expect that sort of thing because of it. As long as we don't touch an exhibit or go into a restricted area, we won't be hassled. At worst, they'll tell us to move on."

To Jim's practiced senses, Townsend wasn't completely buying into the whole thing. He was suspicious enough not to let Blair out of his sight, but not so much so that he willing to risk attracting the wrong kind attention by trying to force Blair to leave at gun point. "Just don't be thinkin,' mate, that you can use whatever plan you have to ditch your Neanderthal boyfriend on me."

"Of course not." Blair agreed merrily. "I'm not fucking you, so it wouldn't work. Though if you want a go at it, hey, you've got a dick, that's all I need."

Close enough to them by this time that if Townsend looked down, he'd catch a glimpse of Jim's shadow, Jim had to stomp down hard on a chuckle at Townsend's expression. If Blair's plan included keeping the man off kilter enough to make mistakes, it was working beautifully. At the very least Blair was thwarting any impulse toward violence Townsend might normally have indulged in by now.

Actually tugging Townsend by the arm, Blair blurbled, "Come on; I can't wait to see if I'm right. That's the difference between us, you know. You're in it for the money. I'm in it for the challenge. That makes me Conrad's heir, like he wanted, and not a treasure hunter, if you ask me. Not that I'll turn up my nose at making a profit, mind you, so don't think I'm going to let a little thing like a gun stop me from getting a reasonable share. If nothing else, I'm useful to you. I can get more on the dollar than you can. You wouldn't have a clue where or how to sell a real narwhal horn, would you? And if you've got legit provinces, whoa, up goes that price range, and I'm great for that, either finding or, ah, creating them."

"Damn me - does Ellison keep you on your knees to give your mouth something better to do than talk?"

"He's been known to on occasion, but his preference is to screw me stupid, which he is more than equipped for, thank God, and it more than makes up for the fact he's not the brightest crayon in the box."

Townsend actually yanked away from Blair to storm on ahead, giving Blair the opportunity to risk a wink at Jim. Taking it for the reassurance it was obviously meant to be, Jim waited until they were inside the building, listening to Townsend grumbling under his breath about being talked to death, before entering himself. By now he had a good idea where Blair was headed - the specialized vault used for cleaning and restoration. Why there, he didn't know, but was willing to bet he'd be given a clue, soon.

Racing ahead, Jim quickly found a place where he could watch that hallway without being seen by Townsend. A minute or two later, Blair sauntered casually into view, only to loiter by a glass case situated close to the plain, apparently empty corridor that led to what appeared to be a janitor's closet. Townsend, looking more and more frayed by the moment, balked at believing anything was there, until Blair subtly pointed out the length of the corridor in comparison to the width of the building. The guard stationed in the room gave both of them the once over, which oddly seemed to encourage Townsend.

During their tour earlier, Blair had told Jim that security roamed at random, as well as doing periodic sweeps, such as the one he'd described to Townsend. Blair must have been counting on that because before very long the single man watching them was approached with a question by a woman accompanying several children, and left with them rather than give directions. Excitement visibly cranking up, Blair plastered himself against a wall, hissing at Townsend to join him.

"Okay, if I'm right, the study is beside the vault on the other side of that." Blair cheerfully indicated the keypad hidden by a thermostat. "I know an override and don't need the gadget I sent the big guy after. With a little luck we can get out of here before he even gets to the hotel. And you can see from here when the cameras are aimed this way if you look in the reflection of the glass. When I say go, be ready to move fast."

Strictly for Jim's ears, he added, "I'm going to try to trick him into going in first so I can lock him in. He can't get out without the code. You need to shout my name just as the door swings open so he's got a reason to rush in."

Though Jim worried at how fast the door moved, he went up on his toes, ready to go.

"Okay, ready, ready…." Blair ticked at a beckoning finger at Jim as he suddenly lunged across to the lock and punched in the code.

"Sandburg!" Jim bellowed, half-running at them.

Spinning to face him, Blair showed shock and fear, and Townsend did exactly as they expected. He plunged into the gap that appeared, vanishing into the dark, free hand slapping at the panel on the other side as if in hopes of commanding the door to shut again, quickly. Blair did that for him on his side, then plunged a pen into the keypad, visibly shorting it out.

Shrinking deeper into the hallway where they wouldn't be seen, Blair held out his arms for Jim to move into, hugging him for all he was worth. "He's caught in the airlock between the foyer and the restoration vault, which is kept pressurized to protect the artifacts. Question is, what do we do with him now?"

Before Jim could answer the question, Townsend fired his gun. Whether he did it out of frustration, or in ignorance of the fact that the steel door was only paneled in wood, or perhaps even in hopes of triggering an emergency release in the electronics - they would never know. Jim heard the shots, instinctively backing Blair into a corner and sheltering him, his own shoulders hunched in anticipation. He listened to the tonk!ping! of the ricochets, and the meaty thud of a deformed bullet hitting flesh.

A second later, a silent alarm went off, and he hustled Blair into the main exhibit hall, immediately slowing his pace to a casual amble, arm looped over Blair's shoulders to steer him despite his confused reluctance. Regardless, they were well clear of that part of building when several guards hurried past. Blair half turned to watch them go, steps slowing. Since that was a natural reaction, Jim didn't stop him, but wouldn't let him go back, either.

Ignoring the worried look Blair gave him, he pressed on until they were outside and in a line for one of the buses. Blair let him get away with the doubling back without questions, even adlibbing excuses to get back off the bus again when it was nearly ready to pull away. Once they were in the parking lot, though, he refused to get in the car, but leaned on the trunk, arms crossed belligerently over his chest.

"Explanation. Now."

"Could you have gotten back into the vault?" Jim asked instead.

Frowning, Blair shook his head. "No, they'll have to do a manual override on the lock, with a key and special tool."

With a sigh, Jim cupped both of Blair's elbows and admitted to what he had heard. At the end he said, "Townsend will have bled out by the time they break in. I'm pretty sure by the smell and sound of the blood that one of his arteries was hit; his heart was already stumbling by the time I was out of ear-shot."

Eyes closed in pain, Blair murmured, "OH, my, god, oh, my, god…"

"I swear to you, there is nothing we could have done. Ultimately, Townsend made the decision to use that gun and sealed his own fate. If it makes you feel better, we'll go back and tell the authorities what we know, but otherwise I don't think they'll connect us to his presence there. The char from the short took out your fingerprints, and he kept his distance from you while you were waiting for the opportunity to open the vault." Jim rubbed soothing circles into Blair's upper arms with his thumbs, uncertain whether or not to press for hiding their involvement in Townsend's death, for the sake of the treasure they had found.

"If he kept notes or collected information on us, the DC police may come looking for us. Which would be worse - stepping forward now or waiting until they knock on our door?" Thankfully, Blair's question was serious, composed, telling Jim clearly he was going to take the practical view, despite the guilt and sorrow he carried.

"We wait and tell them the truth up to the point where he found us in the sculpture garden," Jim said, already planning how to play it. "He's been stalking us because he thinks we know where Conrad's Nazi cache is. Between his reputation, Conrad's solid backing at the Smith, and the information Ducky and Ilsa can provide, the locals will most likely write Townsend off as a nutcase who panicked when he realized the mistake he'd made."

"Not far from the truth," Blair muttered. He took a deep breath and made circles in the air, as if erasing an invisible chalk board. "Okay, that means hanging around the area for another day or two because it looks better that way if the cops want to find us, and letting friends back home we changed our mind about camping because of how horrendous the weather was. DC was an impulse on my part that I nagged you into."

"Not hard to do; I like history, Chief. Got a degree in it, remember? Maybe it's military history, but still.... I've been meaning to visit Arlington for a long time. Maybe we can put that and the Holocaust museum on the same day and get the grieving done all at once." As he'd hoped, his own pragmatic attitude helped settled Blair, who moved toward the passenger door of the car.

As he got in, Blair said, "Man, I don't know if I'm up for that level of sad. Maybe leave those for just before we take off for home, and I hope we take our time driving back."

Following suit, Jim started the engine. "No reason not to. We've only used five days of our vacation, so far."

"And it's only been two since we found that first clue." Blair stared sightlessly out the window, chin in palm, fingers tapping. "Looking back, it's been like getting slammed into a wall, over and over. Bang! Revelation. Boom, figure out the meaning. Wham! Move on to the next. Yeah, I know, there's been stuff in between crashes, but it's still been barely more than forty-eight hours since we saw Conrad's file."

"When you put it that way…." Jim pinched the bridge of his nose, suddenly uneasy at how fast it had all happened. There hadn't been any opportunity for reflection, or to absorb the impact of experiences, let alone consider the long term consequences of their actions. That, in and of itself was suspect, and when he factored in the huge change it had brought to their intimate lives, the cov-op Ranger part of him quivered with wariness.

"Know what it reminds me of?" Blair mused, most of him obviously far, far away. "An initiation." He blinked back to the here and now of the car, swiveling on his backside to catch and hold Jim's gaze. "A test. Like when you had to choose to be a sentinel. Or, or, or…."

"When you denied the sentinel diss. A kind of death, really, like a shaman has to do to take on his full mantle." Comparing how helter-skelter and rushed events in their lives had been at those times with the speed of their search of Conrad's treasure made a strange, Sandburgian kind of sense to Jim. "An initiation not me or you, but of us?"

"Us?" Blair's shock rippled back and forth between them.

"All of Conrad's clues had double meanings, remember? 'Brother Come Join Us.' I've already accepted being a sentinel, and now I've accepted the legacy of being a sentinel in this country. But I wouldn't have been able to find it without you, wouldn't have bothered looking in the first place. Us, not as in just sentinels, but 'us' as in sentinel and partner."

Jim could all be see Blair mentally twisting and turning facts to see how they fit into that theory. "I don't know. I mean, I know that my help is important to you, but it's not like it's critical."

"Wrong." Jim had never been more positive about anything in his life. "You don't have to take my word for it either, just look at the evidence. The first thing I knew about Conrad besides his name was that Tyler was with him. And the regalia in his office? I might have found the Braille when I examined it, but being pulled into the vision of the pairs - the pairs, Chief - that was how I knew it was important. Add to it that one of our contacts was a failed partnership, showing us how things might have turned out. Most importantly, think about the contents of our vault. Was any sentinel there alone? Everything was matched; for instance, the flintlock pistols had that ebony and gold walking cane with them."

To give him credit, Blair thought about it all for a while. They were almost back to their hotel when he finally said, "I don't like the way that smacks of predestination; that you might not have retained your senses if I hadn't been a part of your life. That we became lovers because we were genetically disposed to do so, or that fate decreed we'd have to take that step or you wouldn't have remained fully functional as a sentinel."

Without hesitation Jim pulled into the first safe spot he saw, and turned to gather Blair to him, undoing the seatbelt so he could practically pull him into his lap. "That doesn't have anything to do with being in love with you, or if it does, it's because I love you that you're the one who can help me, which is the way it should be with lovers. I was attracted to you from the very first, and yeah, that gave me incentive to put up with the scruffy, neo-hippy, mad scientist long enough for you to entrench yourself in the professional side of my life. But you moved into my heart and made a place there that is just yours because you're you."

Hiding against Jim's chest, Blair shook his head. "Then why did it take us until now to act on it?"

"Blame that partly on the messed up culture we live in that makes it so hard, if not out and out dangerous, to be with another guy. The rest was probably because we were either doing so well without the sex that we didn't want to chance messing up or that we were so on the outs with each other that it seemed impossible to get that close."

Blair snorted his agreement and nuzzled in closer. "A test of us. It does make sense. Conrad and Tyler must have gone through one. That's why they set us up the way they did, right down to somehow making sure that Townsend was there at the end, since the teamwork we used to deal with him is the ultimate proof of the success of our relationship. No way Conrad wouldn't have derailed him long before his death if that wasn't the case. I wonder when we'll learn to set up sensory clues like they did."

He was quiet, and Jim was about to reluctantly put him aside so they could get back on the road again when Blair stirred, almost dreamily. "Each of us have had to make decisions to go on more than once. I wonder if there'll be another trial for us as sentinel and… sentinel and…"

Abruptly Blair sat up and scooted away to the other side of the car. "Sentinel and what? I'm not really a shaman. There's no place for that role in our world and it's too important a skill set to squander on just one man, even if he is a sentinel."

"Tell that to Major Crimes and your students at the U. That's what you do for our people, even if they might wince at the word."

"It still doesn't feel right; not in relation to you, anyway. Sentinel and what, Jim?"

Though Jim had been worrying over just that problem himself, when the crunch came, he knew, knew as surely as he knew who and what he was. Pulling Blair back to him again to kiss his temple, eyes, cheeks, he murmured with each touch, "Friend, Companion, Partner, Spouse, Mate…"

Resting his forehead against Blair's he added, "They're all right, and they're all wrong, too. The language doesn't have a title that fits because you're unique, what we do together is unique. Maybe that's the way it is with every generation in the legacy, part of what we protect by hiding. Maybe when sentinels are treated here like they are among the Chopec, we'll discover the right designation for our partners. I know what you are to me, though."

"Yeah?"

"Beloved."

~finis~

Back to Stories.

Notes: Thanks to Beth for the artwork. This is what you get when you watch DaVinci Code and National Treasure back to back, then spend the rest of the day writing TS. G