Free To Fall by Psychgirl

Free To Fall - PsychGirl

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Written for the Give and Take TS challenge on LiveJournal. My prompt was “supernatural” from Bumpkin.

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“I made him just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”
--John Milton, Paradise Lost

~~~

Humanity has long dug into its past in the hope that it will shed light on its future. Perhaps what this reveals is that it is the best of ourselves that will survive and lead us through the next millennium. Watching our every step will be our tribal protectors -- the sentinels -- and their insight will further illuminate the spiritual connection of all things.

The End

Blair sat back and sighed, staring at the words on the screen. He was done. Finally, he was done. It was just a first draft; he was sure that he’d have lots of polishing and rewriting to do before he got to the actual defense, but... on a practical level his dissertation was completed.

Funny, he’d thought he was going to feel better at this point.

After Alex, and Mexico, and especially after the crap with Ventriss and Rainier, he’d put on a full-court press to get the thing finished. He was sick of it, sick of academia, sick of the politics, sick of the grind. He just wanted to be rid of it. The problem was, he hadn’t really thought ahead about what he was going to do once he was finished. A faculty position had definitely lost its luster. He could always do research, lead some expeditions....

But that would take him away from Cascade. And away from Jim.

Jim had been right, that night in the truck. He had been stalling. Because he couldn’t figure out a way to wrap things up and still stay in Jim’s life. He wouldn’t need to gather data, so he wouldn’t need to be a ride-along any more. He’d have a job, hopefully, so he wouldn’t need cheap housing. And he probably wouldn’t be needed in the guide department, either. Jim hadn’t needed his help with his senses on any of his recent cases – hell, since coming back from Mexico Jim hadn’t seemed to need his help with anything at all, least of all his senses.

He’d thought that whole bringing-him-back-from-the-dead, shared-vision thing had meant something. He’d tried to figure it out, talk to Jim about it, but Jim – who made a career of repression – wasn’t into talking. To be fair, Jim had been more than a little occupied recently, what with all those old flames of his making their way into Cascade and into his bed.

Yeah, that vision means something, he snorted, it means you’re an idiot who made a rookie mistake and fell in love with your straight friend and roommate.

Sighing, he saved the file to his hard drive, then to his backup floppy, which he ejected and took into his room, locking it safely away in his desk drawer. “First things first,” he muttered. “Once you get a job, you can move out, and things will get better. But first you have to finish the degree--”

A pair of hands over his eyes interrupted his train of thought. Shocked, he grabbed the hands and pulled away, then turned and looked into Naomi’s smiling face. “Mom!” he gasped, his heart pounding, “you startled me. How did you get in?”

“The key that you keep over the door,” she said, her expression bright and cheerful. “You showed me where it was the last time I visited.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” he said, pulling her into a hug. “But why didn’t you call to let me know you were coming?”

“I did, sweetheart. Twice. And left you messages both times.”

He went back into the living room, craning his head to look into the kitchen, and now he could see the red light on the machine blinking steadily. “Sorry, Mom,” he said sheepishly as she came to stand next to him. “I was working late last night and all this morning, and I turned the ringer off so I wouldn’t be disturbed.”

“It’s okay, honey,” she said, rubbing his arm lightly. “What were you working on?”

“The diss.” The need to share his accomplishment with someone tugged at him, and he felt his mouth curve involuntarily in a smile. “Actually, I finished it. It’s done.”

Naomi’s eyes grew round with surprise and joy. “Oh, Blair, that’s wonderful! Can I read it?”

“Oh, no, no, no. Not yet. It’s just a first draft; I’ve got tons of work to do on it yet.” Not to mention trying to figure out how to get Jim’s name out of it, he thought.

“But maybe I could help—”

He took her hands, squeezing them gently. “No, really, Mom. I don’t want you to read it until it’s polished. I want you to be proud of me, you know?”

“Oh, honey, I already am proud of you,” she replied, smiling, pulling her hands free to frame his face. “You’re my favorite son.”

“Because I’m your only son,” he said, arching an eyebrow. “Right? Naomi?”

Her smile didn’t dim as she pushed an errant lock of hair behind his ear, then slid her hands down to cup his shoulders. “If you won’t let me look at it, then how about a friend of mine? He’s an editor, and I’m sure he could give you some good advice on how to rewrite it to make it better.”

“Mom, this isn’t some kind of pop science book....” he started. But the idea had a seductive pull. It would be so nice to get some objective feedback, for once; something other than the tight hostility he knew he was going to get from Jim, or the weary skepticism of his advisor. Someone who would come to it with fresh eyes, who would appreciate all the work he had done, who would be impressed with his findings, his insights....

“There’s a lot of stuff in there that could get me in trouble if it got out,” he told Naomi cautiously. “Names of... subjects, places, dates, things like that. If my committee knew I’d had a professional take a look at it....”

“Darling, he’ll be totally discreet, I assure you,” she said breezily. “He’s an editor; they look at stuff all the time that they can’t tell anyone about.”

“Well....” The lure was just too strong. “Okay. But you’ve got to tell him he can’t tell anyone else about it.”

“Of course.” She leaned forward and kissed his forehead gently. “I’ll email it to him today. And then I’m going to make some wild Bahamian stew for dinner and we’ll all celebrate.”

His gut tensed at the thought of trying to explain this to Jim. Especially given the way he’d been acting lately, so distant and cold. “Uh, Mom? Let’s hold off on telling Jim for a while. I... I don’t want him to see it until it’s polished, either.”

After all, he rationalized, he hadn’t told Jim that he wouldn’t show it to anyone, just that he’d let Jim read it before he turned it in to his committee. Since Naomi’s friend wasn’t his committee, he wasn’t breaking his promise to Jim.

“I understand, sweetie,” she said. “But I’m going to make the stew anyway. Jim will love it.”

Thinking about Jim reminded him of something, and he glanced at the clock in the kitchen. Nearly one o’clock – damn! He was late!

“Naomi, I gotta run, I promised Jim I’d meet him,” he said, going into the kitchen to grab his coat from the hook. “The laptop’s still on; the file is in my ‘Diss’ folder. We’ll be back around dinner time. Make yourself at home....”

“What are you two doing?” she asked, her brows drawn. “Is it dangerous?”

“No, Mom, of course not,” he scoffed, scooping his keys from the basket and opening the door, “you know me better than that. See you tonight!” He waved half-heartedly as he left the loft, his mind already racing ahead. Jim was going to kill him.

~~~

He skidded up to Jim’s side nearly thirty minutes later, breathing heavily.

Jim gave him a sideways glance and then went back to scanning the crowd. “Nice of you to join us, Sandburg,” he said.

“Sorry, man,” he panted. “I was working, and then Naomi dropped by for a surprise visit—” he got another sideways glance at that, shorter this time, but no less deadly—“and when I realized what time it was, I had to park, like, six blocks away because of the crowds.”

Megan walked up on Jim’s other side, her fingers pressed to the receiver in her ear. “Very good, sir,” she said. Nodding at Blair, she touched Jim’s arm lightly. “Ellison, I think they’re ready to start now.”

“What are we doing?” Blair asked.

Jim opened his mouth, but before he could answer a nasal male voice rang out from behind Blair. “Oh, good,” the voice said, “is there another babe on this detail?”

Blair turned and found himself facing a guy slightly shorter than himself, dressed nattily in a gray three-piece suit and dark tie, whose look of disappointment at seeing Blair was almost comical. “You’re no chick,” he complained.

“Blair Sandburg,” he replied, sticking out a hand.

“Whatever, hippie boy,” the guy said, ignoring the hand and turning his gaze on Megan. “Stay out of my limelight, unless you’re going to shave your legs and put on a dress.” He sidled up to her, a wide, smarmy smile stretching across his face. “So, babe, you ready to get this show on the road?”

Megan gave the guy a stony look, then ushered him up the stairs in front of her and on to the stage. As she ascended after him, she shot an eye roll at Blair, who raised an eyebrow at Jim. “Who’s the jerk Megan’s aching to smack?” he asked.

“Jack Bartley,” Jim replied, his expression bland. But his eyes were sharp with amusement. “Union boss. He’s got a contract up for ratification to bring in the dock workers, which has netted him more than a few death threats. Simon got asked by the mayor to provide security.”

Blair did a slow turn, taking in the docks and the crowd around the makeshift stage and podium, behind which Bartley was now standing, holding his arms up in a victory ‘V’ to cheers from the assembled workers. “Well, he’d better take it easy, or Megan’s gonna find a whole new way to ratify his contract, if you know what I mean.”

Jim snorted, although his gaze moved back and forth over the crowd, scanning.

“What are you looking for?” Blair asked.

“I don’t know,” Jim admitted, exhaling. “Anything out of the ordinary. But it’s hard to know how far away or close in to look.”

Inspiration struck Blair. “Don’t look, listen,” he said.

Jim spared him a skeptical glance. “I’m not looking for a bomb, Sandburg.”

“No, but you can cover more area with your hearing than you can with your eyesight. Plus, you’ll hear something out of the ordinary long before you’ll see it.”

Jim didn’t say anything, but Blair saw him turn his head slightly and let his eyes go slightly out of focus, a pose that was all too familiar. He couldn’t stop the thrill of awe and excitement that shivered through him. As many times as he had watched Jim use his senses, he never got tired of it, and it never failed to excite the same response in him.

Jim’s eyes met his briefly. “You’re right,” he said quietly, “that’s better.”

“Good,” he replied, grinning. “Now piggyback your sight onto your hearing. Let your eyes get drawn to what your ears hear, instead of the other way around.”

There was no reply, but Blair knew that that was because Jim was deep into his senses now, concentrating on using both hearing and sight together. He moved closer to Jim and laid his hand lightly on the small of his back. Although there was little chance of Jim zoning, due to the piggybacking, he wanted to do whatever he could to help Jim focus. And you’ll use any excuse to touch him, a little voice inside his mind chided.

Jim’s head snapped up and around, his gaze sharp and clear, drawn to a warehouse on the east side of the crowd. He turned, and in one fluid motion grabbed the rifle from where it was leaning against the stage, sighted through it, and fired.

Pandemonium broke out; someone in the crowd screamed as Megan, interposing her body between Bartley and the warehouse, hustled him off the stage. The crowd was dispersing, hastily moving away in the opposite direction from Jim’s shot, but Jim stood, tall and strong against the flow of people, his eyes still fixed on that faraway point.

Blair’s heart made a funny jump inside his chest. He couldn’t help it; he knew that what had just occurred wasn’t anything to be pleased about, but every time this happened – every time he had an idea that helped Jim use his senses more effectively – he couldn’t help but feel awash in a heady mixture of pride and admiration. Admiration for Jim and his abilities, and pride because he, Blair Sandburg, a lowly anthropology student, had figured out how to help Jim use them more effectively.

“Come on, Chief,” Jim flung over one shoulder as he headed off towards the warehouse.

Grinning, he jogged after Jim. His enthusiasm remained undaunted, even after their search of the assassin’s perch turned up nothing more than a shattered rifle scope and some gum wrappers, even when Jim’s nostrils flared and he shot a dark look at Blair.

“Uh oh, Sandburg... guess who’s back in town?”

~~~

“Klaus Zeller,” Simon proclaimed, handing out photographs to Megan, Joel, and Henri, “AKA The Iceman. International terrorist and assassin for hire. Last seen in Cascade about three years ago, when he was implicated in several murders as part of a scheme to get revenge on a guy who had swindled him. Jim apprehended him—”

Blair cleared his throat.

“Sorry, Jim and Blair apprehended him,” Simon grumbled, rolling his eyes, “and he was safely incarcerated in a German prison until two weeks ago, when he somehow bribed a judge to release him. Interpol suspects he had outside help; maybe even whoever’s responsible for hiring him to off Bartley.”

“According to Interpol, he’s wanted by them for the murder of two agents,” Megan said quietly.

“And he doesn’t like loose ends. Or people who can identify him. Which means me,” Jim added.

Simon nodded. “So, from now on, three-man teams on Bartley, starting with Megan, H, and Jim. Bartley’s speaking schedule gets approved through this office only. Jim, I want you to—”

There was a soft knock at the door, then Rafe stuck his head in. “Sorry to interrupt, Simon, but Blair’s got a call on line two.”

“Sandburg,” Simon growled, “how many times have I told you not to use the department as your personal voicemail system?”

“Sorry, sir,” Blair said meekly, throwing Simon a quick salute and hurrying out into the bullpen. “Who is it?” he mouthed to Rafe as he took the receiver. But he got only a shrug in reply.

“Hello?” he said, putting the phone to his ear.

“Blair, my boy! I’m going to make you a very rich man!” The voice was warm and avuncular, and familiar, although Blair couldn’t quite place it.

“Look, man, whatever you’re selling—”

“No, no, no – not what I’m selling, what I’m buying. As in your book. I think ‘The Sentinel’ has the potential to be a best-seller. We’re talking Celestine Prophecy worldwide best-seller. We could be looking at advances in the six-figure range, easy.”

Blair exhaled, drawing his hand across his mouth. “You’re... you’re Naomi’s friend. The editor.”

“Sid Graham, senior editor and owner of Berkshire Publishing, at your service. I’d like you to come up to New York and meet with me – all expenses paid by Berkshire Publishing, of course – and talk about what we can do for you with respect to publishing this book of yours.”

Anxiety twisted his gut into a knot. He was starting to think that having this guy look at his diss had been a really bad idea. “Uh... I, I can’t really do that. I’m in the middle of something right now, I can’t get away—”

“Does it have to do with this cop, Ellison, the Sentinel? Fantastic! I’d like to meet him too, figure out how he can be involved. Maybe with the publicity. Bring him along.”

“No!” Panic squeezed his chest like a vise. “He’s... he’s not going to be involved, he can’t be involved.” Jesus, if Jim knew that this guy knew about him.... “I told Naomi; she was supposed to make it clear to you. This has got to stay quiet.”

“Okay, okay, I get it. Zipped lips, that’s me. Totally discreet.” There was a pause, during which Blair took a shaky breath and rubbed his hand across his forehead. “So, how about this?” Sid continued. “You can’t come to New York, how about I come to you? Let’s meet in Cascade.”

“I-in Cascade? Here?”

“Sure.” Sid’s voice was syrupy. “What good’s a corporate jet if I can’t use it to fly out to the West Coast?” Blair heard papers being rustled. “Let’s say... 8 am at The Continental?”

“T-tomorrow?” Astonishment was fast replacing panic, underlaid with a thread of gratification and delight. This guy wanted to fly 3,000 miles just to talk to him about his dissertation?

Sid sighed. “Kid, I sure hope you’re faster on the uptake in person. Yes, tomorrow. 8 am. The Continental. See you there.” The line went dead.

He stood in shock, mouth open, staring at the phone, his brain belatedly processing what Sid had said. Six figures? For his dissertation?

“Chief, you’re gonna catch flies with your mouth open like that.”

Startled, he turned to see Jim standing at the side of his desk, hands on hips, frowning at him slightly. “Oh, yeah, sorry,” he answered, putting the handset back on the cradle.

Jim was still looking at him with concern. “You okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, feeling a grin threatening to take over his features. Six figures?

“Who was on the phone?”

The question damped his enthusiasm like a bucket of cold water. He couldn’t tell Jim about this. Not yet. Jim had reacted badly just to reading the first chapter of the diss; if he knew Blair had shown it to someone else.... There’d be time, once they had a deal hashed out and Blair had figured out how to protect Jim’s privacy, to explain it to him. “Ah... Naomi. Asking about our dinner plans. She’s cooking.”

“Unfortunately, I’m on Bartley detail tonight,” Jim replied, getting his backup service revolver out of his desk drawer.

Blair reached for the phone again. “I’ll call her and let her know we won’t make it.”

Jim’s hand came over his, pushing the handset back down. “Nah, Chief, you go have a nice dinner with your mom.”

He met Jim’s gaze, feeling slightly guilty. “You sure, man?”

But Jim was smiling, his eyes warm. “Yeah. This is just good, old-fashioned, everyday cop stuff, nothing I need you for. Naomi doesn’t visit that often; you should enjoy it.” He patted Blair on the cheek and went back to digging in the drawer.

“Thanks, Jim.” It would be good to visit with Naomi, and it would give him a chance to quiz her about Sid, make sure that the guy really was trustworthy. “I’m gonna head on back to the loft, then.”

Jim was strapping his ankle holster on. “All right,” he replied absently. “I’ll be home late; don’t wait up.”

When Blair got back to the loft, Naomi was just putting the finishing touches on her stew. Although she expressed disappointment that Jim wouldn’t be joining them, Blair couldn’t miss her enthusiastic response at getting to spend the evening catching up with him.

“Mom, how well do you know this Sid Graham guy?” he asked as they were eating.

“Oh, very well, honey,” she replied breezily. “I’ve known him – it seems like forever – since before you were born. Why?”

Blair twisted the stem of his wineglass back and forth in his fingers. “I just want to make sure he’s going to keep my dissertation under wraps. There’s some pretty sensitive stuff in it.”

“Trust me, he’s made a career out of dissembling. Nobody gets anything out of him if he doesn’t want them to.”

“It’s just... I could get in a lot of trouble. With my committee, I mean. For talking to a professional publisher before I actually defend it.”

“Sweetie.” Naomi reached across the table and laid her hand on Blair’s reassuringly. “Really, I promise, you won’t regret asking him to help. He’ll give you excellent advice. And he won’t do anything you don’t ask him to.”

“Okay.” He blew his breath out in a big sigh, and smiled at her. “Thanks. I know you must think I’m being a little paranoid about all this....”

Naomi shook her head. “Not at all, sweetie. When are you going to talk to him?”

“Actually, he’s coming down to Cascade,” he said, unable to stop the smile that curved his lips. “I guess it’s a big enough deal that he’s willing to come to me. We’ve got an appointment for tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, Blair, that’s wonderful!” Naomi’s eyes were wide with joy. “I just knew he’d love your work. My son, the genius.” She stroked his hair lovingly.

“Remember, we’re not telling Jim about this yet, okay? Let me get everything figured out first.”

“I promise,” she promised, making a quick sign over her heart. She picked up their wineglasses and the bottle and motioned Blair over to the couch in front of the fireplace. “Now come here and tell me all the things you’ve been up to in the last year.”

~~~

Blair turned slowly on his heel, rotating in a circle, taking in the opulence around him, feeling very underdressed in his khakis and denim shirt.

The Continental was the nicest hotel in Cascade. Originally built in the ‘20’s, it had recently been refurbished, and had lost none of its original beauty and charm while gaining more current accoutrements. Now it was the place for meetings, conventions, and parties, not just for out-of-town visitors, but for residents of Cascade as well.

On this weekday morning, the lobby was bustling with activity. Men in sober gray or dark blue suits hurried through the foyer, sometimes clustering together in groups of two or three before heading into one of the conference rooms or out onto the street. Women, swathed in furs and pearls, strolled through the revolving glass doors for the cabstand and a day of shopping high couture.

Blair sighed and slumped down into a leather wingback chair, checking the ornate clock over the entrance. 8:15. Either Sid was late or he was. He should have asked Sid more specifically about where to meet him.

A young man approached him, wearing a bellhop’s coat. “Sir?” he said tentatively, “are you Mr. Blair Sandburg?”

“Yes,” he answered.

The bellhop smiled. “Mr. Graham is waiting for you in his suite.” He handed Blair a small plastic card. “Just swipe this when you get into the elevator and hit the “P” for penthouse. Come to the front desk if you have any problems.”

“Thanks,” Blair said, taking the card. Feeling slightly stunned, he headed over to the bank of elevators.

He followed the bellhop’s instructions, and, when the elevator doors opened, found himself in a small foyer, a plain glass table topped with a vase of flowers in front of him. To his left, an ornate wooden door stood ajar.

The door swung open further when he rapped on it. “Hello?” he called out.

“Blair!” He heard Sid’s voice, muffled, coming from his left. “Come on in!”

He stepped inside and closed the door behind him, gazing in awe at the sumptuous room before him. A fireplace stood against one wall, a fire blazing merrily inside it, with a couch and several comfortable armchairs grouped around in a loose semicircle. On the other wall, a long buffet made of a dark, polished wood bore several steaming dishes of food. In between was a heavy oval table, with a laptop and several papers at one end.

The wall in front of him was practically all windows. A sliding glass door opened on to a balcony that looked out over Cascade and the bay beyond.

A strong, sharp odor assailed his senses and he sneezed. “Bless you,” Sid said, walking over to Blair, his hand outstretched.

He looked Sid over as he shook his hand. Medium height, average build, with curly salt-and-pepper hair and dark brown eyes that twinkled merrily in a thin, pointed face. He was dressed in tan slacks and a light blue button-down shirt, and his grip on Blair’s hand was firm and sure.

“So you’re Naomi Sandburg’s son,” Sid said, with a smile. “Good to meet you. Let’s go have some breakfast.” He put a hand on Blair’s shoulder, ushering him towards the buffet against the wall.

The buffet was loaded with food. Chafing dishes held scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns. There was a basket of bagels, with cream cheese, lox, and all the trimmings. A cut glass bowl held oranges, apples, and bananas. There was even a platter of sliced tongue. “Oh, I... I really couldn’t... I don’t want to impose....” Then he noticed the silver urn at the end of the table. “Is that... coffee?” he asked.

“Help yourself,” Sid replied, beaming. “It’s no big deal; they do this for me every time I come into town.”

Blair didn’t have to be encouraged twice. He grabbed a plate and started loading it up.

“Sorry about the smell before,” Sid was saying, “the first order of eggs they brought up was rotten, so I had them take it back and bring me a new one.” Blair nodded, remembering the odor that had made him sneeze. Rotten eggs; that had been it.

Once they had filled their plates and gotten coffee, Sid tilted his head towards the fireplace. “Let’s go sit over here,” he said, “it’s more comfortable.

“Blair, I won’t lie to you,” Sid started, as they settled in and started eating, “I think your book’s got real potential. I mean, it’s a bit rough in spots, but we’ve got people who can help you with that.” He took a sip of coffee. “I’m particularly interested in this idea you have that these Sentinels, in addition to having heightened senses, are tapped in to some higher spiritual plane.”

Blair flushed with pleasure. He could never get Jim to talk about the mystical side of things, the visions, what they meant, what had happened at the fountain that day. “I think it’s just like another sense, you know?” he said enthusiastically. “Everyone’s got it, but it’s heightened for Sentinels, and it’s just another source of information they can use to protect the tribe.”

Sid was nodding as he chewed. “See, that’s very big right now; people are really into that spiritual stuff. Look at how well Celestine Prophecy did. And especially now, with the millennium approaching... it’s a hot topic.” He put his plate down and picked up a pad of paper with some figures jotted on it. “I’m thinking, based on initial projections, that we could offer you an advance of about $250,000 dollars. But we’d have to move quickly. We don’t want to be the last people jumping on the bandwagon.”

Heart plummeting, Blair put his fork down, his appetite gone. “Uh, look, Mr. Graham....”

“Call me Sid, baby,” Sid said, with an avuncular pat on his shoulder.

“Sid,” he continued, “I... this is just a first draft of my dissertation. I haven’t even defended it yet. I don’t think my committee is going to appreciate seeing a copy on the New York Times best seller list before they’ve even got a chance to look at it.” He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “And... and I have to find some way to hide the identity of my subject. He’s... Jim’s asked me to keep his involvement secret.”

“Ah, that’s too bad, kid. That’s a hell of a lot of money to pass up. Not to mention what you’ll probably be able to get for the movie and television rights – I would think a couple million, at least.” Sid’s face wore a look of disappointment. “But you’re right. Your education should come first.”

“Although,” Blair said, the thought suddenly occurring to him, “if I really devote myself to it over the summer, I probably could defend early in the fall semester, which would give us plenty of time before the end of the year.”

Sid brightened considerably. “That could work... yeah, that could work!” He picked up the pad and turned it to a fresh sheet; pulled a pen out of his breast pocket. “If we could do some advance publicity; maybe release some short teasers....” His face fell again. “But that doesn’t solve your problem with Ellison, does it?” He put the pad and pen back down. “Oh, well, it was a good idea.”

“What if we hide his identity?” Blair asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Like, replace Jim’s name with ‘the Sentinel’ or something like that?”

Sid tapped his fingers against his mouth thoughtfully. “Hm... I like that. Gives it a suspenseful, mysterious feel. ‘Who is The Sentinel?’ That... that could be a killer ad campaign.” He jumped up and went over to the laptop. “I’ll throw something together, put out a few feelers, see who’s interested. If that’s okay with you.”

“As long as Jim’s name is kept out of it,” Blair said.

“No problem,” Sid said confidently.

Blair glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantle. Almost nine. “Mr. Gr... uh, Sid, I’ve got to run, I’ve got a class to teach.”

“Okay, kid.” Sid was preoccupied with the laptop. “We’ll talk again in a day or so.”

“Sounds good.”

He grabbed his coat and headed for the door, but Sid’s shout made him turn his head. Something was being lobbed at him and he caught it by reflex, turned it in his hands. An apple.

“Take some fruit for the road,” Sid said, eyes twinkling.

“Thanks,” he replied, putting the apple in his coat pocket and raising his hand in farewell as he left the room.

~~~

“...so, after two days of this detail, I think Connor’s ready to take Bartley out herself,” Jim was saying as they rode the elevator up to Major Crimes.

“So no leads, huh?”

Jim shook his head. “Not a one.” He glanced over at Blair. “Say, you were up and out early yesterday morning.”

A lump of cold anxiety slid down into Blair’s stomach, like he’d just swallowed an icicle whole. “Oh, yeah... I had a breakfast meeting... at Rainer, with my advisor.” It wasn’t completely a lie, he rationalized. It had been a breakfast meeting, and it had been about his diss.

“Oh,” Jim said, looking away, his voice suddenly cool.

He hated lying to Jim, but he knew he couldn’t tell him the truth. Not right now. Jim would freak if he knew that Blair had been talking to anyone else about the Sentinel stuff. Once he had defended, once he’d had a chance to hash the details out with Sid, then he’d tell Jim. Once he could assure him that he’d be protected, that no one else would know his secret.

Jim didn’t say another word to him for the remainder of the elevator ride.

“So,” Simon said crisply, once they were all gathered in his office, “two days and no sign of Zeller.”

“The vote on including the dock workers is taking place tomorrow,” Jim said, “and Bartley is bound and determined to make a speech rousing the troops tonight, whether we give him permission or not.”

“I’d just as soon let him make that speech and get shot,” Megan muttered darkly. Simon shot a glare at her and she raised a hand. “Sorry; sorry, sir, I didn’t mean that.”

“A little too touchy-feely?” Blair asked her.

“Feel like my ass is black and blue, mate,” she said under her breath, giving Simon a sweet smile when he looked her way.

“She’s got a point, though, Simon,” Jim said slowly.

“Jim, as law enforcement officers, it’s considered bad form for us to put the people we’re protecting in the line of fire.”

“Not if you’re trying to draw out the person shooting at them,” Blair chimed in, grinning at Jim.

Simon opened his mouth to say something, then stopped, closed it, and gave Jim a measuring look. “You’re talking about putting him out there as bait.”

Jim rose and walked over to the window. “If we let him make this speech tonight, then we control how and where Zeller can get at him. There’s no chance Zeller won’t bite.” He turned and leaned against the sill, facing Blair and the others. “And then we’ve got him.”

“Too risky.” Simon was shaking his head.

“What if we just make Zeller think he’s there?” Megan said. “Set up a dummy in a chair in front of a window. Bartley would probably go along with it. Lord knows his ego’s big enough.”

Simon glanced over at Jim, who nodded. “It could work. While they’re waiting for Bartley, thinking they see him in the window, I can be scanning the crowd for Zeller.”

Exhaling, Simon rubbed his hand over his head. “Okay. We haven’t got a lot of time to plan this, people.” He pointed to Jim and Blair. “You two, go check out the building where Bartley’s scheduled to give his speech. See what kind of terrain we’re working with.”

“Very good, sir.” Jim sketched a salute and headed for the door. “Come on, Chief, let’s go.”

The union hall where Bartley’s speech was scheduled to take place was an old salmon cannery in a refurbished area of downtown by the wharf. There was an open, grassy area between the building and the water; a person could look out over it from a large, semi-circular window on the second floor.

“That’s perfect,” Blair said, pointing at the window.

“Yeah,” Jim nodded. “We can put the dummy in a chair with its back to the window, and it’ll look like Bartley’s working inside.” He turned on his heel, scanning the area. “We can set the stage up right below and direct folks back here for the speech.”

“The weather’s pretty nice right now, and there isn’t supposed to be any rain tonight, so there shouldn’t be a problem with having it outside,” Blair added.

“I think Simon can get us permission to block off a few of the streets leading in here, and there aren’t any other buildings that are close enough for him to get a clear shot. If he wants Bartley, he’s going to have to be in the crowd.” A quick grin lit up his features as he squeezed Blair’s shoulder. “Chief, I think this is gonna work.”

Blair’s heart gave that familiar little jump as he smiled back at Jim. He never could resist Jim’s smile. “Well, let’s get back and tell Simon, huh?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

As they were getting in the truck, Jim said, “Say, you want to stop and get a hot dog?”

“Sure,” Blair replied, rolling down his window.

All of a sudden there were people surrounding the truck, and someone was shoving a microphone in his face. “Mr. Sandburg,” the guy said, “Tony Rogers, Cascade Herald. When will you reveal who The Sentinel is?”

The bottom fell out of Blair’s stomach. He looked over at Jim, who was staring at him in shock. “Chief, you didn’t,” he said.

“No! No, I—” he started to protest.

“Our sources reveal that you’ve been an observer with the Cascade Police Department,” Rogers continued, “working with Detective Ellison, for the past three years. Is he The Sentinel?”

This caused an increased clamor on Jim’s side of the truck, with the reporters there crowding even closer, knocking on the window and shouting at Jim, “Are you The Sentinel, Detective Ellison? How do you use your enhanced senses to solve crimes? Can you give us a demonstration?”

Horrified, Blair turned back to Rogers. “How the hell did you get this information?” he asked.

“Your publisher, Sid Graham, sent us a couple of excerpts as part of some advance publicity for your book,” Rogers replied. “I’m very interested in talking to you about this trip you took to Mexico to apprehend this other Sentinel.”’

“I am not going to be talking about that,” he told Rogers firmly as he rolled up the window. He turned and looked at Jim, who was staring straight ahead, his jaw muscle jumping. “Jim, I... I didn’t think....”

Jim held up his hand. “Do not say anything to me right now, Sandburg,” he fumed. “People!” he snapped, “you are obstructing a law enforcement officer in the performance of his assigned duties. Get away from the truck or I’ll arrest you all.”

The crowd stepped back, and Jim started the engine and pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires.

They drove for a few blocks in silence, then Blair, feeling like he had a ten-pound weight in his stomach, spoke. “Jim, listen, I never thought—”

“I thought you were going to let me read it first?” Jim said, his words clipped.

“I... I will – I am!” he insisted. “It’s just a first draft, and Naomi offered—”

“Oh, so Naomi’s read it, too?”

“No! But she arrived just as I was finishing the first draft, and she offered to have this editor friend of hers look at it... Jim, I just thought he was going to give me some writing advice. But it turns out he’s interested in publishing it—”

“Wait, he’s offering you money?” Jim took a corner, fast, and Blair had to grab for the dashboard to steady himself. “How much?”

“That’s not important. It’s not about that. It’s about—”

How much?

Blair hesitated, the knot in his stomach tightening. “He thinks... he thinks, with movie rights and all, I could get maybe a couple of million.” He took a deep breath. “But, Jim, that’s not—”

“Congratulations, Chief, that’s great.” He had never heard Jim sound so cold. “You went for the brass ring, and you got everything you wanted. That’s great.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he sputtered, “you think that’s what I’m about? That I just did it for the money?”

Jim didn’t reply.

“Oh, now I’m gonna get the silent treatment? Like this is an interrogation or something? Jim, I’m not some perp, I’m your friend.”

Jim jerked the wheel viciously and the truck lurched into the PD garage, bouncing Blair around on the seat. He pulled in to his space and killed the engine. “I’ll tell you something, Sandburg,” he snarled, “that’s not what it looks like from here.”

Numb with shock, Blair could only watch as Jim exited the truck and stalked towards the elevators.

What in the hell had Sid done? He fumbled his cell phone out of the pocket of his coat and dialed the number of The Continental. But the woman at the front desk told him that Mr. Graham wasn’t taking calls this afternoon, and did he want to leave a message? He left one, fuming, and called the loft, trying to find Naomi, but no one answered.

He couldn’t think of anything else to do, so, feeling slightly sick to his stomach, he made his way up to Major Crimes and Simon’s office.

Simon, Megan, and H were gathered around the conference table, looking at a map of the wharf area. Jim was leaning up against the window sill, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. He shot a dark glare at Blair when he entered the room, then looked away.

“...these streets have been blocked off,” Simon was saying as Blair entered. He paused and gave Blair a probing look, then turned his head to do the same to Jim. “...so the only entrance to where Bartley is giving the speech will be through here,” he continued, turning back to the map.

“We’ll have plainclothes officers stationed here, and here,” H said, pointing to areas along the street Simon had indicated. “Connor will stick with Bartley....”

“Oh, thanks a bunch,” Megan grumbled.

“And Rafe and I will be in the crowd, along with a couple of uniforms. Jim, where do you want to be?”

“On the stage,” Jim replied, his voice tight, studiously avoiding Blair’s gaze.

“Sandburg, you’re with Ellison,” said Simon. Blair opened his mouth to say something, but Simon continued ahead doggedly. “I want everyone – and I mean everyone,” this last with a meaningful look at Blair, “in vests. Zeller’s got a bad habit of targeting his pursuers and I don’t want any casualties tonight. Okay, any questions?” He paused. “Then let’s get going. We haven’t got much time. Connor, you and Jim go get Bartley. The rest of you, let’s get out to the site and get ready.”

“Sir, a word?” Jim said, moving towards Simon.

“Detective, what part of ‘we haven’t got much time’ was unclear to you?” Simon snapped.

“But—”

Simon interrupted him. “Later. Now get going.”

Jim paused, his expression unreadable, then headed for the door. Blair started to follow him, but was called back by Simon. “Sandburg, hang on a sec.”

Once everyone had left the office, Simon closed the door and turned to him. “What the hell is going on?”

Swallowing past the lump in his throat, he tried to obfuscate. “W-what do you mean?”

“Sandburg,” Simon said irritably, “do I look like I fell off the turnip truck yesterday? What the hell is going on with you and Jim?”

“What makes you think—”

“Blair, come on. Jim storms in here, furious, barely being civil to any of us. Then you slink in fifteen minutes later, looking like someone shot your puppy. Did you two have a lovers’ spat?”

“What? No!” he spluttered. “It’s... there’s been some reporters asking about my dissertation. Jim and I ran into them on the way back from the union hall.”

“Reporters? Asking about Jim’s, uh....” Simon vaguely motioned to his head.

“Yes. Well, no. Well, sort of. They don’t know it’s Jim, they just suspect it. It’s complicated.”

Simon frowned at him. “Should I take Jim off the detail?”

“No! God, no. He’d kill me. Plus he really is our best chance for catching Zeller.” Blair chewed at his lower lip. “Don’t worry about it, Simon. It’s my problem. I think the best thing to do is just ignore it and concentrate on Bartley and Zeller tonight.”

“If you say so,” Simon said. “But that’s all the more reason I want you with Jim, then. Help him ignore this crap.”

“I don’t think he wants me with him, Simon,” he said, sadly.

“I don’t give a damn what he wants,” Simon growled. “I want Zeller and that means that Jim needs to be functioning at top capacity. And that means he needs you. So get your butt in gear.”

Blair sighed but nodded. “Okay.”

But Jim had already left to get Bartley, so he had to catch a ride with H and Rafe, which meant he had to wait nearly an hour until the uniformed officers were briefed and ready to go. He tried several more times to contact Sid or Naomi, but Sid still wasn’t taking calls, and Naomi wasn’t at the loft. By the time he got to the union hall, the crowd was assembling and it was nearly time for Bartley to give his speech.

He entered the hall and started up the stairs to the second floor room where they were setting up the dummy, but before he got halfway up Jim stormed out of the room and down the stairs, giving Blair a baleful glance as he stalked past him. Blair looked up to see Simon’s silhouette framed in the open door.

Not needing to be given his orders twice, he turned and headed back down the stairs, stopping to pick up a vest and slip it on. Once he was suited up, he walked outside, looking for his Sentinel.

The set-up was almost eerily similar to the last time Bartley had spoken. A stage of rough plywood had been erected, and there were a number of folding chairs in a semi-circle at the back, with a wooden podium in the center. People were gathering on the lawn. Most of them were carrying placards or wearing buttons that supported Bartley, but here and there in the crowd stood grim, heavily muscled men. Blair wondered if they were union members who were opposed to the contract.

Directly in front of the stage was a group of reporters and cameramen, setting up to cover the speech, and Blair felt a twist of anxiety in his belly when he saw them.

Jim strode across the stage, one hand at his shoulder, fastening his vest. As he climbed down the stairs, Blair hurried across the lawn to intercept him. This time Jim didn’t even look at him. He stood, jaw clenched and arms crossed, eyes scanning the crowd.

“Now, I think you should try to piggyback smell with sight, here, because—”

“I know how to do my job, Sandburg,” Jim snapped, “I don’t need you to tell me. Save the showing off for your interviews.”

“Jim, come on,” he said. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. Can’t we just--”

But he never got a chance to finish his thought, because right at that moment one of the reporters yelled out, “Hey, it’s that Sentinel guy!” All of a sudden there was a crush of bodies all around them. Flashbulbs were going off like fireworks, and Blair saw Jim lurch backwards, one arm over his eyes. He could hear people yelling questions, just like that afternoon. “Detective Ellison, are you The Sentinel? Which sense do you use the most? Are you using your senses now?”

“Stop it!” he shouted, pushing into the crowd, trying to drive them away from Jim. “Leave him alone! He’s trying to do his job!”

He heard an oddly familiar sound, like a short, high-pitched whine, twice, then two thwacks, as if someone was hitting a side of beef with their fist. He frowned, trying to remember where he’d heard it before. And then he remembered.

Outside the mine. When they went to rescue Simon.

Oh, no. No.

He spun around in time to see Jim collapse to the ground. For a moment his fear froze him, then he started fighting his way back through the crowd, shouting at people to get out of his way, feeling like he was wading through molasses.

Dread closed his throat as he reached Jim’s side and saw the two neat holes in the Kevlar. He stripped the vest off, whimpering when he saw the pools of crimson spreading on Jim’s white t-shirt. Clamping his hands over the wounds, he found his voice and screamed, “Someone call an ambulance! Officer down!”

~~~

Blair stared at the wall of the hospital waiting room. It had been painted a bland, flat beige; an equally bland landscape, framed in slender contemporary wood, hung on the wall at a slight angle. Unable to help himself, he reached out and nudged the lower left corner slightly. The picture tilted and then came to rest skewed in the opposite direction. Blair sighed, and then prodded the other corner. The picture slid back to its original position.

Oh, well, it beat pacing a groove in the floor.

The doors slid open with a whoosh and Blair turned to see Simon entering, his long brown coat billowing out behind him, his face creased with concern. “Any news?” he asked.

Blair shook his head, crossing his arms tightly across his chest, his hands gripping his elbows. He felt like he was going to explode if something didn’t happen soon. “It’s been three hours already.”

Simon gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze. “He’s going to be okay, Sandburg,” he said gently. “You know how tough Jim is.”

“I don’t know, Simon,” he said thickly. “There was so much blood. “

“I know,” Simon replied quietly. “Why don’t I help you get cleaned up?” He put a hand on Blair’s elbow, tugging gently.

“No!” He had this irrational fear that washing Jim’s blood off his hands, off his shirt would somehow be like washing Jim’s life down the drain. But he couldn’t tell Simon that. “I... I don’t want to leave. The doctor should be out soon.”

“Then come and sit down.”

“No, I can’t.” He gave Simon a beseeching look. “The bullets went right through his vest.”

Simon rubbed his hand over his head and exhaled. “Yeah. He was using hollow points.”

“Did we get him?”

“No.”

He could feel himself shaking, even though he wasn’t aware of feeling cold. “How’s Bartley?”

“He’s fine.” Simon’s reply was barely audible. “Zeller got the dummy.”

He nodded.

“Blair, what happened?” Simon asked.

God, where to begin? He rubbed a hand across his face wearily. “You know how I told you that there were some reporters asking questions about my dissertation? Well, this publisher named Sid Graham had approached me....”

But his account was cut off as Naomi burst through the door, enveloping him in a hug. “Oh, sweetie, oh, Blair, I just heard about the shooting. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine,” he replied dully.

“And Jim? Is he okay?”

Before he could answer her, they were interrupted by an older gentleman in surgical scrubs. “Are any of you here with James Ellison?”

“I am.” Blair stepped forward to face the man, apprehension tightening his gut. “I’m his roommate, Blair Sandburg; this is his captain, Simon Banks. How’s Jim doing?”

The look on the man’s face was grave. “I’m Doctor Sorensen. We’ve just brought Mr. Ellison out of surgery. He made it through, although we had to resuscitate him on the table, and I understand that he coded twice in the ambulance on the ride over.”

He nodded, throat tight, blinking back tears. The memory of that awful trip was burned into in his heart like a brand.

“I won’t lie to you, his prognosis is not good. Although the vest did lessen much of the bullets’ force, and we were able to repair the damage to his organs, he was without oxygen for a significant amount of time. I’m not sure that his cognitive functioning has remained intact.” He directed a compassionate look at Blair. “I understand you hold his power of attorney?”

Blair nodded, swallowing in a throat that was suddenly sharp and dry.

“I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you need to be prepared for the fact that you may have to make a decision about whether or not Mr. Ellison remains on life support.”

The words hit him like a slap in the face and he rocked back on his heels slightly. Pull the plug? On Jim? He couldn’t.

But... what if his brain had been damaged? Or what if he never regained consciousness? Would Jim want to live like that? Jim was a fighter, but they’d never really talked about what his preferences were.

“Thank you, Doctor,” he heard Simon say. His voice sounded very far away. “I think Mr. Sandburg needs some time to think about this.”

“Of course,” Sorenson replied. “We’ll be moving Mr. Ellison to the ICU in a few hours; you can see him then, although, please, just one at a time and for ten minutes only. I’ll come and let you know when he’s ready to have visitors.”

As the doctor walked away, Naomi embraced him again. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

Anger flared abruptly inside him and he shoved Naomi away. “You said he’d be discreet!” he hissed at her. “You said he could keep a secret!”

Naomi looked confused. “Blair, I... I don’t....”

“Sid! He wasn’t supposed to release Jim’s name. No one was supposed to know who he was.” He rubbed his hand over his face. His head was pounding and his throat felt tight. “How... how could he lie to me like that?”

“Blair,” Naomi said, her voice quiet and sober, “I’m sure that, whatever Sid did, it was in your best interests.”

He stared at her, a sudden clench in his gut. ...your best interests.... How many times had he heard that phrase from Naomi? “Why? Why would he care about me?”

Naomi was looking at the floor, the walls, everywhere but at him. “ I... I didn’t want you to find out like this, but....”

His stomach plummeted. “No. No.” He backed away from Naomi, palms raised towards her as if he could push this revelation away. “I can’t hear this. I can’t deal with this. Not now.” His calves hit the hard plastic edge of the chair and he collapsed into it, his head dropping into his hands.

“Blair. Naomi. What’s going on?” asked Simon.

“Sid Graham is Blair’s father.” Naomi said.

“No!” Blair roared. His head hurt so badly he thought it was going to explode, and there was a tight ball of agony that felt like a lead weight in his chest. “Why the hell would you tell me this now, Naomi?”

“I was young, and... and it was the first time I’d been to New York, and... oh, sweetie, it’s complicated. You really need to talk to Sid.”

The roil of emotions within him coalesced into action, and he lurched to his feet, grabbing his coat off the seat next to him. “That’s exactly what I intend to do,” he replied, “and he’s going to give me some answers.” He looked at Simon. “Call me if something happens.” With a final glare at Naomi, he pulled his coat on and left the waiting room.

He had to take a cab from the hospital, because he’d ridden in with Jim that morning. Jesus, he thought, as the driver wove his way through the streets of Cascade, was it only this morning? He felt like it had been days.

Fortunately, he still had the keycard, so he was able to get up to the penthouse floor without attracting any attention. The heavy carved door was closed this time, but it wasn’t locked, and yielded easily when he turned the knob. As he entered, he was struck again by the odor of rotten eggs.

Sid was standing over by the fireplace, leaning casually against the mantle, eating an apple. “Hello, Blair,” he said.

“Why did you do it?” Blair said, without preamble, as he stalked across the room towards Sid, his fists clenched. “Jim’s been shot, he’s on life support, they’re not sure if he’s gonna make it—” his voice broke at that, but he swallowed and recovered—“and it’s all your fault. If he hadn’t been distracted by those reporters... you told me you understood. You told me you were gonna keep his name out of it.”

“And I did,” Sid replied calmly. “I did exactly what you suggested; I changed all mention of Jim’s name to ‘The Sentinel’. But clearly those reporters figured it out.” He smiled at Blair. “Not really a stretch, when you think about it. Your observer credentials are a matter of public record. Your subject is clearly working in a forensic capacity. Not very hard to put two and two together, is it?

Sid’s statement stopped him in his tracks, and he felt guilt clutch at his chest. What had he been thinking? Of course it would be easy for someone to piece it together. All they had to do was look at what he had been doing the last three and a half years. Had he really been so naive as to believe that simply changing Jim’s name would be enough to hide his involvement?

“I gave you a choice,” Sid continued, “at every point. You agreed to let Naomi send me your dissertation to read. You agreed to come here and meet with me. And you agreed that I could send out a press release. You could have said no to any of those, at any time.”

His spirits plummeted as he realized the truth behind Sid’s words. He’d been so proud of his accomplishment, so eager to show it off, so craving of recognition, that he hadn’t thought seriously about the consequences. He’d been so dazzled by the idea that someone would pay that much for his work. “It’s all my fault,” he whispered. His knees wobbled and he sank down onto the couch. “If it hadn’t been for my stupid pride....” His throat closed in shame and grief. If it hadn’t been for his pride, Jim would be whole now, uninjured.

“Don’t feel bad, kid,” Sid said, sitting down beside him on the couch. “Anyone would have done the same as you. I mean, you can’t help it. Pride’s a natural human reaction. It’s your birthright, not a sin.” He took a bite of apple and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “And, really, it’s all turned out for the best. This Ellison guy, he was just holding you back, with all these demands for secrecy. You’ve got potential, Blair, you could be a star, but not with that albatross around your neck.”

“Naomi told me who you are,” he said, dully. In the face of his complicity in Jim’s death, the news about Sid being his father didn’t seem so important anymore.

“Did she now?” Sid replied, smiling. He finished the apple and tossed the core into the fireplace.

“She said you’re my father.”

“Oh, I’m a little more than that.”

Blair stared at him, confused.

“I can get you anything you want,” Sid told him. “Sure, this Sentinel thing; a book deal, movie rights, a couple of million, blah blah blah. But that’s just the beginning. How about making sure you get that doctorate? How about a Nobel Prize or two? How about an endowed chair? Fame, power, influence? The ear of powerful people? Unlimited amounts of money? You could fund all the projects, all the expeditions you like. And all you’d have to do is a few favors for me now and then.”

“What... what are you talking about? Are you with the mob or something?”

Sid laughed. “The mob. That’s a good one, kid.” He paused for a moment. “Or... how about this? How about if I get you Jim? Oh, he won’t be exactly the same – a copy’s never perfect, after all. But I can guarantee that he’ll love you as much as you love him. And he’ll be free from those annoying personality quirks, like that quick temper and that strong moral fiber.”

Blair felt off-kilter, like his internal horizon was gone. When had the situation gone from tragic to surreal? “You’re offering me a person?”

“A homunculus, really. But you’ll never know the difference, unless you look real close.”

“Who the hell are you?” he whispered.

“Ah, yes, that’s a good question,” Sid replied, chuckling. “Who the Hell am I?” He looked away, pretending to stroke his chin in thought. “There have been so many names... Lucifer, Asmodai, Beelzebub, Belial, Satan, Iblis... it’s hard to keep track.”

“You’re insane.” He stood and headed for the door.

Sid frowned. “That hasn’t usually been one of them. Naomi! You want to come out here and convince our son I’m telling the truth?”

Blair froze as the door opened and his mother entered. With a small, apologetic smile, she slipped past him and went to Sid, put her arms around him, and gave him a kiss. “Mom?” he murmured as he turned towards her, feeling as if the floor had turned to quicksand under his feet. “Please tell me this is a joke?”

She came to him and took his hands in hers. “It’s all true, sweetie, just as Sid – your dad – says. I was promised to him at an early age. You would have been raised in the faith, knowing your family, but our group was attacked shortly after you were born, and we had to flee. Even when Sid found us, it wasn’t safe for us to be together, and we had to keep moving to stay ahead of our enemies.”

He searched her face, feeling his guts twist in horror as he saw the honesty and seriousness in her gaze. A shudder ran down his spine and he staggered away from her, yanking his hands out of her grip. “Oh, God... I’m not... I can’t....” He stumbled over to the dining room table and sat down heavily in one of the chairs.

“God’s got nothing to do with it, son,” Sid said sharply. “Where do you think you get that talent for obfuscating, for talking people into doing things that they don’t want to do? You think that comes from God? No. That’s the devil’s tongue you’ve got, boy, and you use it quite well, if I do say so myself.”

“But there’s nothing evil about that,” he protested. “I only do that to help people out, like Jim, or Joel.” The thought of Jim sent a twinge of pain through his heart.

Naomi gave an exasperated sigh. “See, this is why I didn’t want you working with the police! I didn’t want you infected with these ridiculous notions of right and wrong, good and evil.” She shook her head at Blair sadly. “There’s no such thing as good or evil, sweetie. There’s only power, and those who are daring and confident enough to use it. I thought I’d raised you to understand that.”

He rubbed his hands over his face, suddenly bone-tired. This couldn’t be real, this couldn’t be happening. It was like a nightmare, except that he couldn’t wake up.

Sid had come over and sat down at the table across from him. “Son,” he said, “this is an opportunity. An opportunity for you to get everything you’ve ever wanted, an opportunity for us to be a family again.” He put his hand out on the table, palm up. “Join us. I’ve called a press conference; let’s go take advantage of the moment. This is your chance to tell the press the truth about Jim, a truth that can’t hurt him anymore. And it will guarantee that your book’s a best seller.”

Blair eyed Sid’s hand dully. “Why do you even ask? If you’re the Devil, why don’t you just make me do it?”

Chuckling, Sid replied, “It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got free will; all humans do. I can’t make anyone do anything.” He raised an eyebrow. “Milton really did say it best: ‘Sufficient to stand, though free to fall.’ You have to choose to sin. And, fortunately, you do. You all do. You can’t help it, really. It’s a set up; the oldest bait-and-switch around.” An apple had appeared in his other hand. “He dangles all the pleasures of the universe in front of you, and then says, ‘But you can’t touch!’. Well, I say: to Hell with that.” He grinned and took a bite of the apple, enjoying it with obvious relish.

Naomi had come up to stand behind Sid, her hands on his shoulders, her eyes sparkling with joy. “Please, sweetie? Join us? Then we can all be together.”

“Free will, huh?” He smiled, but there was no mirth in his heart. There was, however, the beginnings of an idea. An idea which might allow him to at least salvage something from the wreck he’d made of his and Jim’s lives. He thought about it for several moments, then reached out and slid his hand into Sid’s. “Okay, I’m in. What do I have to do?”

~~~

Blair mounted the steps to the podium, squinting a little under the bright lights of the cameras. He lay down the page with the few brief notes he’d jotted down and looked out over the crowd, spotting Sid and Naomi in the back. Naomi had her arm around Sid’s waist and both of them were beaming at him.

He cleared his throat. “Thank you all for coming,” he said. “I just have a short statement prepared. I know that many of you have wondered, given my work with the Cascade PD, if Detective James Ellison is ‘The Sentinel’ that I refer to in my dissertation.” He paused, and took a deep breath. “I am here today to tell you that that is not the case. Because my thesis, The Sentinel, is a fraud.”

A low murmur of surprise ran through the crowd. He looked up to see Sid’s face contorted in fury, and Naomi looking at him sadly, shaking her head.

“In this media-addicted culture, it is tempting to bypass the usual avenues of peer review and validation in order to obtain mass acclaim for one’s work. Although I cited ancient source material, all documentation I presented suggesting that such heightened senses could exist in a contemporary individual was fraudulent. Looking back, I can say it’s a good work of fiction. I apologize for this deception. My only hope is that I can be forgiven for the suffering I've caused Detective Ellison and his family. Thank you.”

Sid and Naomi vanished in a burst of light and a whiff of rotten eggs, which no one but Blair seemed to notice. And now Blair remembered another source for that smell; sulfur, sometimes referred to as brimstone.

He descended listlessly from the podium and left the conference room, weathering glances of disgust and disgruntled mutterings from some of the reporters. Although he hadn’t consciously chosen a direction, he wasn’t terribly surprised to find, after walking for a while, that he’d ended up at the hospital. There was one more person he needed to try to make amends with.

The nurse at the front desk gave him directions to Jim’s room, although she looked at him oddly when he asked. Maybe it was the blood on his shirt. He supposed that wearing it didn’t make him look very sane. But he really didn’t care.

As he entered Jim’s room, a shock went through him from head to heels. The bed was empty, and stripped down to the plastic-covered mattress. He ran his hands over it; the plastic was cool to the touch. It had been a while since anyone – anyone alive, that is – had been lying in this bed.

His shaking hands clenched into fists. Damn it. He was too late. He squeezed his eyes shut, but that couldn’t stop the tears that spilled out and ran down his cheeks. All he’d wanted was a chance to say goodbye to Jim, a chance to apologize for what he’d done. But Jim was already gone. “I’m sorry,” he whispered brokenly. A sob rose in his throat and he clenched his jaw tightly against it, feeling that if he started letting his grief out now, he might never be able to stop.

The toilet flushed, and he found himself abruptly filled with anger. Couldn’t he just have one moment of peace to say goodbye to his friend? Was it so much to ask to be given a little time to mourn before the room was stripped and cleaned? He knew there were people waiting, people who were sick and in need, but didn’t he deserve just a little consideration? He knew it wasn’t right, wasn’t fair, but he was overflowing with misery and rage and pain, and he was going to give whoever this person was a piece of his mind.

The door opened and Jim came out, his shirt open and hanging off his right shoulder. His left shoulder was heavily bandaged and his left arm rested in a sling. He was trying to pull his shirt on over the bandage, but wasn’t succeeding. “Chief, I think I’m gonna need your help with this,” he said. Then he looked up and saw Blair, and his face went pale. “Jesus Christ, Blair, what’s the matter?”

He felt jammed, caught like a fly in amber. He couldn’t say anything or even make a sound in reply. He saw Jim reach for him, but Jim looked very small, like he was at the opposite end of a very long tunnel, and all of a sudden the tiny opening closed up and everything went black.

When he opened his eyes he was lying flat on his back, and Jim’s face was hanging above him, brows drawn in concern. “Hey, buddy, you okay? I think you might have fainted.”

He sat up quickly, wrapping his arms around Jim in a hug. Jim was solid and warm and real, he smelled like soap and disinfectant, and Blair could feel his chest rising and falling under his cheek as Jim breathed. The sensations brought on a fresh bout of tears, which he tried, again unsuccessfully, to smother. To his relief, though, Jim didn’t pull away or act uncomfortable; he just perched on the edge of the bed and held Blair close, rubbing his back slowly with his good hand.

After a few minutes, he got himself back under control and let go of Jim with a shaky smile. “Uh... thanks,” he rasped.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” Jim said quietly, but firmly.

“I... I thought.... You, you were dead,” he stammered. “You were shot twice, in the chest, and the doctor said you weren’t going to make it.” He swallowed, confused, as he ran his fingers over Jim’s bare, unblemished chest. “We were trying to smoke Zeller out by putting up a decoy of Bartley. But there were reporters there, harassing you, and in the confusion he shot you. Twice. Hollow points. They went right through the vest.” His hand was starting to shake, so he folded it up into a fist and jammed it in his lap. “It... it was all my fault.”

But even as he was telling Jim about it, the memory of it was fading, the details growing dim and vague, the events strange and surreal, the way a dream seems from the waking world.

Jim was shaking his head. “That’s not what happened, Chief. You joined us just as the rally was getting started. You helped me piggyback my sight onto my hearing and I heard Zeller cock the the rifle. I managed to take him out, but not before he got me in the shoulder.”

“You mean he’s dead?”

“As a doornail. I think you must have had a bad dream or something. Maybe while you were waiting for me to get this taken care of.” Jim motioned to his shoulder.

There was something else, something nagging at him. Something about his dissertation, about people finding out about it, about Jim... they were harassing him, pursuing him, threatening him.... “I’m getting rid of my diss,” he announced.

“What?” Jim said. “Blair, wait a second. I know that you’re upset that I read the first chapter, but let’s think about this before you do something rash.”

“Nope. Nothing to think about. I’ve made up my mind. The whole thing’s going out – write-ups, reports, drafts, everything.” He gave Jim a measured look. “Maybe not the data. That could be useful to us.”

Jim’s expression was inscrutable. “Chief... that book was your whole life.”

“No. It’s just a book. And it’s not what I want anymore.”

“What do you want?”

Emotionally, he felt drained, and he was thirsty, and a little hungry, and he wasn’t in control of his tongue like he usually was. “You,” he blurted out, and felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment. “I... I mean as a partner... a work partner, of course, not... not a romantic partner,” he babbled, furiously trying to backtrack, “because you wouldn’t want that, which is fine, of course....”

Jim leaned forward and kissed him, a light brush of his lips against Blair’s, just enough to shut him up. “That’s what I want, too,” Jim said quietly.

“Really?” he asked, grinning, delight spreading through him like warm caramel. “Me?”

“You,” Jim replied, matching Blair’s smile with his own. Then the smile faded. “Look, Chief, I know I’ve been acting like an ass since we came back from Mexico, and I’m sorry....”

Blair grabbed a handful of Jim’s shirt and pulled him close, and this time Jim’s kiss was firmer, and warmer, and full of promise, the promise of lazy afternoons and evenings that would be spent in bed exploring every inch of each others’ bodies until they were both spent and sated.

The sound of a throat clearing startled Blair and he pulled away from Jim to see a young doctor standing at the foot of his bed. “Hello there, I’m Dr. Johnson,” he said, with a slight smile on his face. “Mr. Sandburg, do you mind if I check you over? We were a little concerned when you passed out.”

“No, no, that’s fine,” he replied, lying back on the bed.

The doctor took his pulse, and his blood pressure, and listened to his heart, and his lungs, and did some other things, but Blair wasn’t really paying attention, because the whole time he couldn’t take his eyes off of Jim, and couldn’t stop thinking about what they were going to do once they got home.

Jim wasn’t much help in that department, either; he kept a hand on Blair constantly, rubbing his arm lightly or just holding his hand, his thumb stroking gently across Blair’s knuckles. And he kept shooting swift glances at Blair, full of heat and longing, that made Blair’s insides melt.

When the doctor was finished examining him, he wrote a few things in Blair’s chart, then said, “Well, Mr. Sandburg, you seem a little fatigued, and dehydrated, but otherwise you’re very healthy. I don’t see any reason to keep you here, as long as you promise to get some rest and drink some fluids.”

“I’ll make sure he does that, Doc,” Jim said. He turned to Blair. “You ready to go, Chief?”

“You know it,” Blair said, letting Jim help him up off the bed. “Let’s go home.”

The doctor stood and watched the two men leave the room together. His form blurred and shifted, and a moment later it was Sid who stood there. “Lust, eh?” he said, a wide grin on his face. “Okay. I can work with that.”

The End

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Notes: Thanks to Mab and Skye for the excellent and thorough beta. All mistakes are my own. Thank you to Patt for the artwork.

Author’s Note: This is a pastiche, of sorts, of the movie The Devil's Advocate. I thought about calling it "The Devil's Anthropologist", but figured that would be too obvious.