THE VICTIM



Sandra McDonald






The thought occurred to Jim Ellison that he could have paid a hooker from Front Street $50 for an hour in her room, no questions asked, no intricate role plays of seducer and seducee, just pure lust and cheap fulfillment, and walked away marginally satisfied. Of course, he would never dare risk it. Not in the age of AIDS and a dozen other sexually transmitted diseases. He certainly wouldn't do anything to bring discredit on the Cascade Police Department - and with his luck, he would be right in the middle of orgasm when a Channel 6 news crew knocked down the door, demanding an interview with the Police Officer of the Year. All other reasons aside, the fact remained that Jim did not need to pay for sex. He'd only paid once or twice anyway, as a young Army officer in Panama, pretty girls in every bar and a wad of cash burning in his pocket. That had been a long time ago, a different world and different Jim Ellison altogether.

Instead of paying for sex outright, however, he found himself buying it in a dozen different ways. He'd flirted with petite, perky Ellen Grant from Central Records for two weeks before asking her out. Dinner for two at a trendy restaurant cost him $43. The movie afterward, with popcorn and soda, came to $24. The following Thursday he picked her up for their second date with a $10 bouquet of flowers. She insisted on sharing the tab that night - $17 each, and Jim left the $6 tip. That night he got a good night kiss. Three dinners, two movies and one day at the museum later, he finally coaxed her into a romantic mid-week dinner at the loft. He would have preferred a Friday evening, but she attended school three nights a week. Groceries cost him $51, more flowers $12, a bottle of wine $18, and a new tablecloth $25. His roommate and Guide, Blair Sandburg, had ruined the last one staging an impromptu recreation of a Huichol Indian peyote ceremony in the living room. Blair kept promising to buy a new one, but Jim had no intentions of waiting until the new millennium.

All in all, Jim figured it had cost him three weeks and over $300 to maneuver Ellen to this candlelit, intimate night in the loft. From their first date he'd known they didn't have enough emotionally or intellectually in common to sustain a lasting relationship. He supposed a true gentleman would have ended the courtship, but maybe he wasn't a true gentleman. Since Blair had moved in, Jim's social life had been somewhat hampered. If the graduate student wasn't staying up studying and grading papers until the wee small hours of the morning, he was dragging Jim off on one misadventure after another. Jim's own heavy workload and devotion to catching criminals contributed just as often to long, lonely nights spent on stakeouts or chasing down clues.

The annoying, derisive rumor at the station that he and Sandburg had their own thing going on hadn't helped his romantic life in the slightest. Jim supposed he would have raised an eyebrow himself if two of the detectives in the bullpen worked together, went home together, and spent virtually all of their free time hanging out, but he and Blair were different. Blair was his Guide. The one person in the world who could help him with his Sentinel senses. His best friend on the planet, to be completely honest. The guys at the station could think what they want and go to hell. He had nothing to prove.

Or so he told himself.

Besides, it wasn't as if Ellen didn't give every indication of enjoying the pursuit. She flirted, held his hand, kissed him sweetly, dropped by his desk during the day. She'd mentioned nothing that would have sent him running in the other direction - not a single word of love, commitment or monogamy. And here she was now, straddling him on the couch, her blue silk blouse discarded on the coffee table, her strawberry-pink lips tracing a trail down his bare chest from collarbone to navel.

Jim squirmed beneath her tantalizing touch. "Let's go upstairs," he gasped.

"I thought you'd never ask," she smiled.

Still, even as he led her upstairs, he couldn't help thinking a hooker would have been cheaper.

Ellen bounced on the edge of his bed with a gleam in her eye as Jim practically ripped off his pants. He pressed down on her, his hands fumbling first at the hooks of her lacy black bra and then at the buttons of her tight skirt. His whole body began to shift and harden as they slid into a pattern of touching, kissing, probing.

"I'm glad we're finally doing this," Ellen whispered.

"Me too," he managed. He caught her head between his hands and kissed her deeply. The fine strands of her dark hair delighted his extrasenstive fingers, and the taste of her mouth and tongue almost sent him reeling. Sex with his enhanced Sentinel senses had proven to be an exhilarating experience, although he hadn't shared that particular information with Blair and didn't intend to. He could smell Ellen's shampoo, soap, perfume and scent. Her skin against his made him tingle from scalp to toe, delightful shivers nearly overwhelming in scope. He could hear her heartbeat, breathing and magnified sounds of pleasure -

A series of thuds blasted into his awareness, like heavy metal slabs toppling against each other. As he rolled away in surprise and dismay he recognized the sound for what it was - a key turning in the tumblers of the front door deadbolt. He swore silently and viciously to himself. Blair had promised to spend the night over at a friend's house. Had sworn to-

He was going to kill his Guide.

"Jim?" Ellen asked, propping up on one elbow. She probably hadn't even heard the bolt turn. Her hair hung in damp curls down her back and she gleamed in the moonlight falling through the high windows. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Jim panted.

The front door squeaked open.

Ellen clutched the sheet to her chest. "Who's that?" she whispered.

"It's got to be Sandburg," he groaned. He rolled off the mattress. "Hold on. I'll go find out what he's doing and send him away."

Mustering a calmness for her benefit, he pulled on his pants, squared his shoulders and started down the stairs to the dark living room with every intention of strangling his Guide. His over-stimulated senses refused to focus properly and he couldn't discern more than anyone with normal vision. "Sandburg!" he hissed. Sexual frustration, adrenaline and annoyance made the word come out louder than he'd intended. He stubbed his toe on the coffee table and let out a yelp.

"Jim?" Ellen called down. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine!" he answered, with as much false brightness as possible while hopping around on one foot and clutching his wounded appendage. He swung on Blair, who sat on the sofa and could be seen as a silhouette against the backdrop of the living room windows. "Sandburg, what the hell are you doing here?"

"Sorry," Blair mumbled.

Jim tried to keep his voice pitched low. "Sorry isn't what I want to hear! What I want to hear is the sound of that door closing behind you!"

"Can't."

The younger man's voice sounded vague and weak. Jim's sense of smell sharpened on its own, flooding his sinuses with a salty, coppery odor. Fear kicked into his gut and he dove toward the nearest light switch, his stubbed toe utterly forgotten.

Blair winced at the sudden flood of brightness but otherwise didn't move. He sat with his left arm cradled across his chest. A long, neat slice in his denim sleeve leaked blood that had spread to his arm, chest and side. Blair's glassy stare was fixed on something Jim couldn't see and the paleness in his face matched the white of their marble bathtub.

"Jesus, Blair!" Jim practically shouted. He dashed toward the kitchen and grabbed a fistful of clean dishcloths. "What happened?"

"Got robbed," Blair answered. His eyes closed in a faint and he started to sag sideways. Jim caught him and eased him flat on his back on the sofa. He pushed down on the bleeding arm with the cloths, applying direct pressure as best he could.

Ellen appeared at the top of the stairs with one of Jim's T-shirts thrown over her disarrayed skirt. "Jim? What's going on?"

"Get down here, I need your help!" Jim ordered.

Ellen came down and stood behind him. Her hand pressed to her mouth in horror at the sight of so much blood. Jim didn't have time for her to turn hysterical on him. "Take that pillow and prop his feet up," he ordered sternly. "Good. Now grab that afghan-"

"You'll ruin it," she said, hesitating.

"Put it on him!" Jim ordered. Who cared if Blair's blood ruined the afghan, the sofa, the floor? Blair grew paler by the second and the cloths beneath Jim's hands turned damp. He pressed harder, ignoring the groan it brought from his barely conscious roommate, and was rewarded by a slight lessening.

"Now call 911," Jim snapped. "Have them send an ambulance."

She did so with shaking hands and a trembling voice. Blair's eyes fluttered open and he moved in protest beneath Jim's hands. "Hurts," he mumbled. "Stop it."

"No can do, partner," Jim said soothingly. "Just stay still. I have to get the bleeding stopped."

"Stop," Blair repeated, grimacing.

"Ssssh. We'll be in the hospital in a little bit and you'll be fine. What happened? Do you remember?"

"Some kid - my wallet..."

"Some kid stole your wallet?"

"...knife. Had a knife."

"I bet he did."

Blair's face screwed up in concentration. "I want to ...sit up," he said, and feebly attempted to do so.

"No!" Jim made the warning as stern as he could. "Stay still."

Blair's eyes filled with tears. "You don't have to .... yell at me."

"I'm not yelling," Jim soothed. He could see the individual beads of sweat on his Guide's forehead, hear his pounding heart, and sense even from a few feet away his falling temperature. Those symptoms and Blair's confusion marked the condition of shock. "Don't move around, okay? You're bleeding."

"I am?" Blair looked surprised.

"Yes. But everything's under control."

Ellen's hand came down to rest tentatively on Jim's shoulder. "I hear the ambulance. It's almost here."

Jim nodded. He'd heard the wail sixty seconds before she did, a high-pitched siren that had cut through a hundred background noises straight to Jim's awareness like an arrow hitting a target. His years of police experience, coupled with Sentinel sensing, told him the ambulance was still at least three blocks away. Blair could slip into irreversible shock or suffer brain damage from blood loss by the time it arrived. Jim pressed down more firmly on his bleeding arm.

"Go down and wait for them in the doorway, please," Jim said. "Lead them up here."

Ellen scooped up her discarded blouse from Jim's coffee table, turned demurely away and peeled off the borrowed T-shirt. He could hear her fasten each individual button and resisted the urge to scream at her. She retrieved her shoes from the side of the sofa, donned one blue pump and then the other, and left the apartment. Her heels tapped their way down the hallway toward the stairs.

"Jim," Blair said.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"Sorry about... interrupting your date."

Fond exasperation cut through the tight feeling in Jim's chest. Sandburg was apologizing for getting stabbed. "Don't worry about it."

The ambulance squealed to a stop in the street below. Jim listened to its doors swing open and feet hit the ground. He tracked the progress of the paramedics up the stairs. He knew both of the men who appeared in the doorway with sturdy bags of equipment in tow. Fair-haired, blue-eyed Gary Leeson, one of the most amiable men Jim had ever met, had been a patrol officer for three years before deciding that he preferred healing over handcuffing. His partner Mike Goldsmith, dark-skinned and usually quiet, had been a paramedic for more than fifteen years. He'd once won a medal from the city for saving two kids from a treacherous ravine out in Carter's Canyon, and Jim thought he was the best paramedic in the city.

"Hey, Jim, what's going on?" Gary asked as he and Mike zeroed in on Blair's figure. The bags went to the floor. Bandages, a blood pressure cuff, a stethoscope and IV bags appeared in rapid order.

"Robbed at knifepoint," Jim said. For some reason the words tried to lodge in his throat. "Kid took a chunk out of his arm."

"I'm okay," Blair insisted, focusing on the paramedics.

"Of course you are," Gary nodded. "What's your name? Are you hurt anywhere else?"

While Blair answered their questions Mike took over the direct pressure from Jim. The bleeding had almost stopped, but Jim knew that Blair wasn't completely out of danger. The two paramedics wrapped up his arm, took down his vital information and started an IV to pump up his fluids.

"You're going to be fine," Mike said, his voice a soothing bass that rumbled out of his wide chest. "Jim, why don't you help Gary go get the gurney?"

Jim hated to leave Blair, even in Mike's capable hands, but he appreciated the chance to do something constructive. He paused only to grab a shirt and throw on a pair of shoes before following Gary down the stairs. A patrol car had arrived on the scene, its spinning lights bouncing red and blue off the shops, restaurants and apartments on Jim's street. Katie Marshall, the lone officer behind the wheel, was a veteran of five years on the force and the only person to come close to Jim's score at the previous month's department pistol competition.

"It's Sandburg," Jim told her tensely, as he and Gary hauled the collapsible gurney out of the ambulance and toward the stairs. "Some kid stole his wallet and cut him up."

"Is he going to be all right?" Katie asked, opening the door for them.

"Right as rain," Gary said cheerfully.

Jim wished he shared his confidence, but he didn't. Cold, empty uncertainty twisted in his stomach. They got the gurney up the stairs - damn it, why hadn't he picked a building with an elevator? - and the two paramedics shifted Blair from the sofa to the foam mattress with Jim's help. Ellen stood silently, watching with wide eyes. Katie, who was as tall as Jim and as blonde as a Nordic goddess, towered over her in her dark blue uniform, jacket and utility belt.

"Just a short ride now," Gary said to Blair. "We'll be at the hospital in no time."

Ellen put her small hand on Jim's arm. "I'll go with you, if you like."

Jim had almost forgotten about her - almost but not quite, not with her scent still riding his skin. Her words might have been sincere, but the lines in her face and tenseness in her neck and shoulders betrayed her.

"No, it's okay," he said, shifting his attention back as Mike and Gary rolled the gurney into the hall. Distracted, he added, "Let me call you a cab."

"Jim, I drove my own car over."

"Right," he said, as his feet carried him to the door. He ached to help carry the gurney down from the third floor, but he didn't want to hinder the paramedics' efforts. Still, the prospect of his partner crashing downward while strapped to the metal frame made his stomach lurch.

"Go with him," Katie said. "Everything will be fine here."

Jim nodded gratefully to her. "Thanks, Katie." To Ellen he said, "Sorry about all this."

She offered a weak smile. "It's not your fault. Maybe we can get together again some time?"

Jim didn't answer, too preoccupied with the gurney bashing against the plaster walls of the stairwell. Well, perhaps not bashing, but even the slightest scrape reminded him of chalk screeching down a blackboard. It took a few minutes to carry Blair down and load him into the ambulance. A crowd had gathered to watch the goings-on, as if a circus had come to town. Jim saw their faces as little more than blurs as he climbed up into the back of the vehicle. He tried to make himself as small and unobtrusive as possible on the padded bench as Mike locked the gurney into place and made sure Blair was ready for transport.

"Here we go," Gary called from the driver's seat, as the ambulance pulled into traffic. "We'll be there in four minutes."

Blair's eyes were open, although his vision seemed locked on some private, interior sight. Jim wrapped his fingers around his partner's hand and the younger man's gaze slid toward him.

"Hey," Blair rasped out.

"Hey, yourself."

"No fair... listening."

Jim didn't understand. "Listening to what?"

"My heartbeat," Blair mumbled, with a hint of a smile at the secret they shared. "My blood pounding..."

"Don't mind him," Mike said, adjusting the IV line that ran into Blair's good arm. "He might not make much sense at the moment."

"Senses!" Blair exclaimed, seizing on the word. "Got to work on your senses, Jim."

"Why don't you rest?" Jim suggested firmly. His concern over his partner's condition couldn't override his own instincts of self-preservation. The last thing either of them needed was for Blair to start rambling about Jim's Sentinel abilities.

Blair must have been holding enough of himself together to recognize the warning note in Jim's tone. He frowned, turned his head away, and pulled slightly against the safety restraints. "I want to go home."

"Later, buddy."

"I'm going to be... sick."

"No, you're not." Mike jumped into the conversation sounding calm and confident. "Just do us all a favor, Blair, and take some deep breaths. Nice and easy."

Four minutes and thirty seconds later Gary braked the ambulance to a stop at St. Paul's hospital. The physician and nurse who met the gurney at the sliding glass doors ordered Blair to be taken down to treatment cubicle number three. Two young Hispanic orderlies wheeled him away obediently

None of the medical staff seemed overly worried about Blair being in a life-or-death crisis, and for the first time Jim consciously realized Blair's wound probably wouldn't be fatal. Still, out of habit and concern, he started to follow his partner.

"Stay with us, Jim." Mike put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "You know they need to do their jobs. Let's fill out some forms, okay?"

Jim's heart warred with his head. He supposed he could bully his way to Blair's side, alienating the doctors and nurses to the point where they called hospital security on him. That had happened before. It never helped Blair. Jim sighed and nodded his head.

Gary and Mike wrote down Blair's insurance information - Jim had long since memorized his partner's university health plan number - for the ambulance bill that would be forthcoming. Another call came in, and they had to leave immediately. Gary took a few seconds to slap Jim on the back. "Don't worry. I'm sure he's going to be fine."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "Thanks for everything."

After they left, Jim rubbed his eyes and turned toward the waiting room. The blue plastic chairs, blaring television and dusty plastic plants seemed depressingly familiar. Two grimy and noisy boys, seven or eight years old each, sat on the tiled floor ramming their miniature cars and fire trucks into the furniture. Their mother, a thin woman with stringy brown hair and baggy clothes, stood at the payphone commiserating with someone and occasionally yelling at her boys to quiet down. They ignored her completely. An elderly man sat in the corner, his gnarled hands wrapped tightly around the head of a weathered black cane. He seemed to be on the verge of tears. Two seats to his right, a very pregnant African-American woman flipped restlessly through the pages of a dog-eared "Sports Illustrated" and frowned at the pictures inside.

The admitting clerk needed information from Jim - Blair's social security number, insurance company, address and phone number among other things. She tapped the information into the computer using blood-red fingernails and snapped her wad of pink bubble gum so loudly he wanted to lean over and make her swallow it. He clenched his fists instead and went to go sit down and wait. He distracted himself from his fear by counting the number of flower petals in the pastoral painting hung thirty feet across the room.

"Jim," a woman's voice said. A hand came down to rest on his arm. Officer Katie Marshall lifted her eyebrows. "Any word?"

"It's only been a few minutes," Jim said vaguely, although a quick look at the wall-mounted clock showed him it had been almost a half-hour since Blair had been wheeled away from him.

"I'll go find out what's going on," she promised. "Stay here."

He felt too drained and tired to do anything more than watch her stride purposefully to the nurse sitting behind the admitting clerk. With a few confident, no-nonsense directives she gained access through the double doors marked "Medical Personnel Only." Jim followed the sound of her footsteps with his Sentinel hearing, but lost his focus when a fire truck rammed into his ankle.

"Hey!" he said sharply to one of the snot-nosed kids. "Be careful with that thing."

The kid ignored him in favor of crawling under the end table to practice crashing the truck into the sofa.

Jim opened up his hearing again and tried to sort through an inrush of disquieting sounds including the soft whimpers of a baby, the pierce and drag of a needle and surgical thread through soft flesh, and the erratic beats of a heart monitor. The beeps flatlined and he realized he was listening to someone's death. He tried to close his hearing down but the process backfired and his sense of smell went into overdrive instead. The stench of rotting ulcerations flooded his sinuses, accompanied by heavy odors of blood, bile, urine, excrement -

Jim bolted for the bathroom. Inside the cold and mirrored room he found himself under instant assault by thick waves of bleach, soap and antiseptic. He bent over the sink, ran cold water into his hands, and buried his face in his palms and fingers. The water stank of chlorine and microscopic rust particles scratched his skin. His knees gave out and he thudded to the floor, landing smack on his tailbone. The pain snapped his senses off, but it took several long, sweating minutes for him to recover his equilibrium.

He dragged himself upright and bathed his face. Tepid water, no rust. He wished desperately that Blair was there, ready to explain everything, able to pull him out of any Sentinel tailspin.

"Be okay, Chief," he whispered to his reflection in the mirror. "Be okay"

He went back to the waiting room. A young Asian man carrying a wailing infant had taken his seat. Jim turned around, unable to make a simple decision about which of the other fifteen empty seats to claim. Katie's head poked out from between the double doors and she motioned for Jim to join her.

"The doctor put thirty stitches in his arm," Katie said, sounding impressed. "He's right over here."

Jim pushed past a white curtain and found Blair fully reclined on an exam table, hooked up to a hanging bag of plasma. He looked much, much better than the last time Jim had seen him. Color had returned to his cheeks and lips, and the marble hardness of his face had softened to normal flesh. His blood-soaked flannel shirt had been cut away and removed, and his denim jacket hung in pieces on a hook in the corner. A thick white bandage covered his injured arm from wrist to elbow.

"Hi, Jim," Blair said unhappily. "Sorry to ruin your romantic evening and everything."

"You didn't ruin anything," Jim said automatically. Relief flooded through his body, so profound and all-encompassing that he nearly sagged onto the stool behind him. Instead he turned to the physician, a plump and dark-haired woman in her mid-forties. She smelled like menthol cigarettes, peppermints and imitation Giorgio perfume. "How's my partner, Doc?" Jim asked.

"I've seen much, much worse," she smiled. She finished scribbling notes in Blair's chart and offered her hand. "I'm Dr. Nadeau."

"Detective James Ellison, Cascade P.D."

Nadeau looked at Blair. "Is he a police officer, too?"

"A civilian observer," Jim said. "Can I take him home?"

"Sure. We sewed up his arm and gave him some heavy duty painkillers. I'd like to wait a little bit longer and make sure his fluids are back up, but then he's all yours. How's that?"

"Stop talking about me like I'm not here," Blair complained.

"Sorry," Nadeau answered cheerfully. "I'm off to go visit my other patients now. The ones who really need my help. I'll be back to check on you in a little bit. Do you want anything?"

Blair shook his head and the physician left. Katie reached for her spiral notebook and took a step closer to Blair. "Do you think you can tell me what happened to you tonight?"

"Nothing happened," Blair said, pulling his thin white sheet up higher. Jim could almost see the wall sliding shut behind his eyes, so swiftly and firmly it nearly clanked when it hit bottom. The flat, stubborn insistence in voice overrode any weakness or grogginess. "Nothing at all."

Jim gaped at him.

"Something happened," Katie said, sounding quite reasonable. "Someone cut you."

Blair's frown deepened. "Just a kid at the ATM machine. He wanted my wallet and I didn't hand it over fast enough. My mistake. End of story."

"Which ATM, Chief?" Jim asked.

Blair shrugged. "I don't know. Just a regular ATM."

Katie frowned. "One near your place, or in some other neighborhood?"

"It doesn't matter!" Blair said harshly. "Just an ATM. Just a kid. That's it."

"I see." Katie closed her book and slid it into her belt. She seemed more disappointed than distressed by Blair's attitude. "If you remember anything else, let me know, okay? Here's my card. I'll leave it with Jim."

Blair turned his head away, as if she no longer existed. Jim escorted Katie back to the emergency room entrance and apologized for Blair's rudeness.

She assured him, "I'm not taking it personally. Take care of yourself, Jim. See you later."

"Bye, Katie." After a moment of thought, Jim retraced his steps to Blair's cubicle and found the graduate student staring at the ceiling, his eyes moist. He sniffed when Jim came in and made a visible attempt to control himself.

"You should go home," Blair said roughly. "Get some sleep. I'll be okay"

"That's not going to happen, Chief." Jim hooked one foot around the nearby stool, dragged it closer, and sat down. He kept his voice even and calm. "Besides, I didn't bring my truck. I'm not even sure I brought my wallet. I guess you're stuck with me."

"Is it..." Blair started to ask, but stopped. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat. "Can I come home tonight? I really don't want to stay over Tony's place."

Jim tried not to roll his eyes or make a joke of the absurdity of that question. He reminded himself Blair had been pumped with drugs and was still disoriented. "Yeah. Of course you can come home."

Hope flared in Blair's voice. "Really? What about your hot date?"

Jim patted his arm reassuringly. "My hot date is probably curled up in her own bed by now. It just you and me, Sandburg."

"Oh."

Jim thought about questioning Blair about the robbery, not to mention chiding him for giving Katie such an attitude, but again reminded himself that the drugs and confusion had probably contributed to Blair's uncharacteristic curtness. They could talk about the issue later. Blair dozed, or at least appeared to. Jim moved his stool against the wall and leaned back, arms folded, to close his own eyes for a few minutes. He didn't dare go to sleep fully - those few feet to the floor would hurt if he fell - but he took a deep breath and tried to relax.

"Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"Sorry you had to send Ellen home and stuff."

"Sandburg, I don't know what's going on in your head, but will you quite apologizing already? It's not your fault you got stabbed."

"I shouldn't have."

Jim didn't like the sound of that. He stood, stretched, and approached the exam table. "Shouldn't have what?"

Blair shook his head. "Nothing."

"You think if you'd been quicker to obey, the kid wouldn't have cut you?"

Wide blue eyes darted toward Jim, but just as quickly moved away. "Maybe"

"Don't torture yourself like that. Hindsight is 20/20, you know? If I'd been standing just two feet sideways, you wouldn't have gotten shot in the woods when we were rescuing Simon. If I'd stayed out with you in the bullpen, you wouldn't have eaten that spiked pizza, shot up the garage and ended up breathing through a hose. Don't go down that road, Blair. I've been there enough to know the way by heart."

Blair didn't respond for a full minute. Then he said mildly, "Nice speech. Did you rehearse it?"

Jim allowed himself a small smile. "I have it memorized."

Blair found the energy to put on a half-hearted smile of his own. "I bet" He closed his eyes and sighed. "Can we leave now? I just want to go home."

"I'll go find Dr. Nadeau and twist her arm."

The arm-twisting didn't take long, but finishing the paperwork, filling prescriptions and getting Blair into a properly fitting sling took another hour. Jim had only been joking about forgetting his wallet. He had twenty three dollars in it, but only eight after paying the cabbie who drove them home through the dark, empty streets. Blair trudged up the stairs on his own power, resting at both landings with Jim ready to lend a hand at any moment. Once inside the loft door Blair stopped in dismay.

"Shit," he said.

Jim locked the door and turned, surprised at the language and concerned about whatever had inspired Blair into obscenity. "What's the matter?"

"The sofa, man!" Blair waved his hand toward the furniture in question. "It's ruined!"

"It'll come out."

"No it won't."

"So we'll get a new one. Don't worry about it. I've been meaning to replace that one ever since you spilled your guava-banana-kiwi shake all over it."

Blair didn't respond to the teasing note in Jim's voice. Instead he dragged his good hand across his eyes, as if trying to erase the sight, and went down the hall. Jim busied himself by clearing the remains of dinner in the kitchen. Blair emerged from the bathroom with red-rimmed eyes and tried to help, but Jim shooed him away.

"Go to sleep. That's what the doctor ordered. You don't have to teach tomorrow, do you?"

"No."

"Do you have class?"

"Nothing I can't miss."

"Then it all works out. Go ahead. It's almost four a.m. now."

Blair leaned against the twin doors to his bedroom. He looked as though only sheer stubbornness kept him on his feet. "You go to bed, too."

"Yeah, me too. You need help with that sling?"

"No," Blair said, somewhat peevishly, and shuffled inside his room.

Jim had already decided to call in sick for the day. He had nothing pressing on his list of things to do, and Simon had already suggested he take a day or two off while he could. He left an explanation of the night's events on his captain's voice mail and played back the two messages that had accumulated on the answering machine while they'd been at the hospital. The first was a hang-up. The second was Blair's friend Tony, wondering if Blair still planned to sleep over at his house.

Jim filled a bucket with cold water and detergent and used old rags to sop the blood off the sofa and hardwood floor. The fabric resisted but the floor came out nicely. He cleaned a trail of bloody spots all the way from the sofa to the door, along the hall, down the stairs and to the sidewalk below. He found three bloody handprints on the walls, spots where Blair had apparently braced himself in his halting, stumbling journey home. The image of his partner staggering along and dripping blood did nothing for Jim's peace of mind.

He bet that in the daylight he could use his Sentinel sight to trace Blair's blood along the sidewalk to the scene of the crime. Considering Blair's injury and blood loss, the ATM machine couldn't be too far away. Unless, of course, Blair had actually driven in his condition. Where was Blair's car? He'd purchased a used Volvo with the insurance payoff from his wrecked Corvair. If he'd driven, it couldn't be far away either.

Jim yawned so widely his jaw cracked and almost gave into the urge to go to sleep. He'd been up for almost twenty four hours and the exertion of scrubbing away blood had left his shoulders and back aching. On the other hand, he didn't want the trail to be obliterated by hundreds of footsteps by morning pedestrians, and whoever had Blair's wallet had his address as well and might decided to get rid of his witness. Most muggers weren't murderers, but who knew? Jim dumped the cold and bloody water down the toilet, rinsed the rags and tossed them in the garbage, and retrieved a flashlight from the pantry.

He returned an hour later, successful in his mission. The light in Blair's bedroom still shone. What could he be doing in there? Jim listened and heard only Blair's regular heartbeat and his slow, heavy breathing. He edged one of the twin doors open and found his partner sprawled on his bed, fully dressed and sound asleep.

Jim stood over the bed and gazed down somberly. Just a few inches deeper with that knife, and Blair could have been sliced firmly and permanently from Jim's life. The thought chilled him to the bone. Jim unlaced and removed Blair's sneakers but didn't try to get him undressed. He pulled up half of the green comforter to fold over Blair. Blair didn't stir at all. Jim turned out the light, left his partner to sleep, and climbed up the stairs to his own bed muttering thanks to whatever assorted gods looked after Blair Sandburg.


Blair woke up to a long, heavy and blank moment. He knew something had happened, but the weight and awfulness of it had swung away from him like a pendulum on a smooth arc. In the space between swings he couldn't remember what terrible thing awaited him. The pendulum swung down, hammering into his breastbone, and he flinched. A supposedly safe neighborhood. A good looking kid in an "I Love Cascade" sweatshirt. A threat, a knife, a hot stab that cut clear through his arm -

His arm. It hurt now almost as much as it had the night before, maybe even more. Blair eyed the prescription bottle laying sideways on his nightstand, but the effort to snag it seemed too monumental to even consider undertaking. He realized he hadn't undressed and was still wearing the surgical scrub shirt Dr. Nadeau had filched to replace his ruined jersey. He could see the tops of his toes and wiggled them beneath his green socks. Had he lost his sneakers somewhere? Hard to say. A question for a more coherent time, perhaps. At the moment he felt too tired, sore, hot and headachy to contemplate any riddle of the universe more complicated than what time it was.

That answer would have been more readily apparent had he not smacked his alarm clock into mechanical heaven the week before, over-reacting to the shrill alarm after only three hours of sleep one night. Blair raised his good arm and squinted with effort, but couldn't decided if the hands displayed eight a.m. or twenty minutes before two o'clock. He let his arm succumb to gravity and drop back down. Jim was either on his way to work or already there, which meant Blair would have the loft blessedly to himself.

He reprimanded himself for that ungracious thought. A guy couldn't ask for a better friend, partner or roommate. Not only had Jim given up his romantic evening to accompany Blair to the E.R, but he'd also stuck around for a few hours, taken him home, and very casually dismissed the ruins of his sofa. The ruin he, Blair Sandburg, had caused because he'd been stupid enough to get stabbed over a cheap leather wallet, driver's license, student I.D., overextended VISA card and fifty dollars in cash.

He wondered which would be harder - obtaining a new license from the labyrinthine, dungeon-like Department of Motor Vehicles two blocks from police headquarters, or getting a new I.D. card from the dragon lady who lorded over the Bursar's Office. The lesser of two evils had to Mrs. Mulargy, even if the very sight of her sent terror into the heart of undergraduate and graduate students alike. Blair had no intention of going near headquarters to bear the humiliation of a hundred cops laughing at him.

Katie Marshall hadn't laughed, but every rule had an exception. It took no stretch of the imagination to see Simon reading the report, chomping on the end of his cigar and demanding "What kind of trouble did Sandburg get into this time? He can't even walk down the street by himself!" Jim would probably defend him, but Jim couldn't be too pleased about the sofa, his ruined date or spending most of the night in the E.R.

A small part of Blair's brain suggested he might be over-reacting to the incident, but he ignored the idea. The sound of someone rattling the dishes in the kitchen made him freeze. Had his robber obtained his address from the driver's license, broken into the loft, and started to raid the kitchen? Ridiculous. He squinted at his watch again. Quarter to two. Jim must have come home on his lunch break, or called in sick.

Blair considered hiding in his room for the rest of the day, but the call of nature overwhelmed all other options and he slowly, achingly sat up. The sling hampered his movements and just the slight jostling of his arm sent razor-sharp pain spiraling to his elbow. He groaned involuntarily, and Jim's voice called out almost instantly.

"Sandburg? You awake?"

Like Jim couldn't tell. Blair took a steadying breath and croaked out, "Yeah."

"Need help?"

"No."

"Hungry?"

"No."

Two lies in five seconds. Not his best record, but close. Blair eased to his feet, shuffled to the doors, and emerged into the full glare of autumn sunlight pouring through the loft windows. He raised his good hand against the merciless glare and lumbered toward the bathroom feeling like a vampire wakened grumpily from his casket. Getting his jeans undone with only his left hand left him frustrated and tired all over again. He didn't bother to zip up, but instead went back to his room and changed slowly into a pair of ratty, smelly red sweatpants pulled from his dirty hamper.

The exertion left him cold and sweaty, sitting on the edge of his bed and unable to muster the strength to stand up again. Maybe he could go back to sleep for a few hours. A shadow fell across him and he blinked at Jim's face. Jim had his workman's coveralls on and reeked of wood varnish. He carried a tall glass of water in one hand.

"Undercover as a handyman?" Blair asked.

Jim grinned. "Something like that." He crossed to the nightstand, shook out two of the painkillers, and gave them and the water to Blair. "Take these. You'll feel better."

"My partner, Florence Nightingale," Blair sniffed, but he did as instructed. The chunky white tablets scratched his throat on the way down. "Aren't you supposed to be at work?"

"I took the day off."

"To baby-sit me?" Blair hated how his voice rose at the end of the question like a petulant kid's.

Jim shrugged. "I thought you might not be in the best shape, yeah, but I also wanted to get that bookcase re-varnished, too."

So, two could play the lying game. Blair didn't dispute Jim's excuse. He pulled himself upright, studiously ignoring any look of pity or sympathy from his partner's face, and went to the kitchen. His wallet lay smack dab in the middle of the table. Blair halted so abruptly when he saw it that Jim, just two steps behind, nearly careened into him.

"Where did that come from?" Blair demanded.

Jim circled around him and poured lemonade from a pitcher into a glass. "I found it in an alley two blocks east of here. It was easy once I found your car down at the corner and figured out which way the kid had probably gone. He took your money, but I think the rest is there."

Blair didn't want to pick up the wallet. He imagined it crawling with disease, with the dead skin cells and sweat of his assailant. But he did anyway, and noted, "My credit card is missing."

"Better call it in."

"I will." Blair didn't move toward the phone, though. He put the worn wallet back on the table. "So you found my car, huh?"

"Why did you come all the way back here? Tony lives ten blocks west. Did you forget something?"

"No. I ordered a pizza from Angelo's around the corner. They make the best Sicilian pizza this side of the country. I needed money to pay for it."

"And the kid just walked up to you?"

Blair shot him a look. He'd already revealed more than he'd intended to about the robbery. The chances of ever finding the kid wavered between slim and none, and he saw little use in repeating the horrid details over and over. He moved past Jim to open the refrigerator and saw that his roommate had fixed up a green salad, dill hummus and chopped vegetables in fresh pita pockets and gazpacho soup for lunch.

Great. The Sentinel had spent his morning cooking, refinishing furniture and retrieving criminal evidence. Blair's biggest accomplishment had been whizzing into the toilet bowl, not on the bathroom floor, and his only goal was to crawl back in bed as soon as humanly possible.

"I'll be on the balcony," Jim announced, apparently tired of waiting for Blair's response to his question. "Yell if you need anything."

Blair nodded. He brought lunch to the table and sagged into a chair. He knew he should have thanked Jim, not only for fixing the meal but for finding his wallet and being so damn considerate of him. Gratitude, however, might just encourage Jim to keep up his nursemaid act, and Blair didn't want any of that. He ate the pita sandwiches without tasting them, and watched Jim through the living room windows as the older man worked on the solid pine bookcase he'd found at a flea market weeks earlier. When Blair finished he went to the balcony door and asked, "When do you want to get a new sofa?"

Jim blinked. "What?"

"It would be easier for me if we wait until my payday, but if you can't wait that long, I'll take out a cash advance or something."

Jim didn't respond right away. Varnish dropped from the paintbrush in his right hand and splattered on the newspapers carefully arranged underfoot, each page facing the same direction. The sunny autumn day was bright and crisp, and Jim's cheeks had turned pink from the cool weather.

"The sofa can wait, Chief. Maybe this weekend. Maybe next. There's no hurry."

"No hurry?" Blair asked skeptically. "You can't see or smell the stains?"

Jim's face clouded up. He turned to the shelves that he'd stacked against the balcony railing. "We'll go when you're up to it, Sandburg."

Blair almost snapped at the patronizing tone, but held back. His whirlwind mood swings were not lending him the most rational interpersonal advice at the moment. He went to the sofa to inspect the damage himself and found a few brown spots, but nothing too bad. He remembered forcing himself along the sidewalk and up the stairs, so very cold and very tired, his arm in agony, propelled only by the knowledge Jim would help. Jim would make everything all right. The memory drained what little strength Blair had and he sat down on the stained cushions. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. After some time he gave in to the temptation to slide sideways and curl up on his side. Someone put a warm, soft blanket on top of him, and he opened his eyes just a slit to look at Jim.

"Sorry, man," he mumbled.

"For what now?"

"Being ungrateful."

"You're not ungrateful," Jim said. "You're just a little upset."

Blair wanted to argue - he was not upset at all, really - but found it easier to drift off to sleep than muster more lies. A pounding on the door jerked him awake so violently he bolted upright, red agony exploding from his fingertips to the top of his skull. "Easy, Chief!" Jim's hands came to rest on his shoulders. "Calm down. Just relax."

Through gritted teeth Blair managed, "Easy for you to say!"

"It's what you tell me to do all the time," Jim pointed out. "Come on, slow and deep breathing. It's just Simon at the door. I can smell his cigars and that awful aftershave Darryl gave him for his birthday."

The pounding came again, although Blair did have to admit it sounded more like knocking than anything else.

"Lie down," Jim ordered. "I'll get it."

What Blair really wanted was to flee to the safety and privacy of his bedroom, but he didn't have the energy. He sagged back down to the cushions and closed his eyes. Maybe he could pretend to be asleep and Simon would just go away.

"So this is how the other half lives, huh?" Simon asked, in that deep and rumbling voice of his. He sounded in a good mood, which made Blair's mood even worse. The police captain continued, "Must be nice to just lounge around all day and do nothing."

Yeah, Blair thought bitterly. All you have to do is get cut open by a kid with a knife. But Jim responded to the tease first, and his words told Blair that Simon hadn't been addressing him at all.

"Someone's got to do it," Jim said. "I'm thinking of taking tomorrow off too. Want a beer?"

"No, thanks. I can't stay long. I just came to see how Sandburg is doing."

"I'm fine," Blair spoke up. "Nothing to worry about here."

Simon rounded the edge of the sofa and peered down at him. "How many stitches did you get?"

"Thirty," Jim supplied.

Blair shook his head. "It's just a scratch."

"Sandburg, thirty stitches is not a scratch," Simon frowned.

Blair turned his gaze from the police captain and concentrated on a bothersome hangnail on his left thumb. "I'm sure you read the report."

"If you can call it a report, yes. I've read Chinese fortune cookie messages longer than the statement you gave Officer Marshall."

"Yeah, well, it's all I could remember."

"You don't remember whether the kid was black, white, Chinese, Spanish, anything? Short, tall, skinny, fat? Nothing like that?"

"Simon," Jim said. One word, but it held a gentle warning even Blair could hear. Half of him wanted to scream out that he didn't need the Sentinel's protection while the other half secretly welcomed the support.

Simon shook his head, undeterred. "If we're going to catch this kid, we need information."

"You're not going to catch him," Blair said, unable to keep anger from his voice any longer. Despite the protests of his arm he swung his feet to the floor and pulled himself upright. Jim tried to help, but Blair swatted the offending hand away. "And even if you do catch him, what will happen? Juvenile hall? Probation? Give me a break, Simon. What happened to me happens all over this city every day of the year, and nothing's going to ever change that."

His little diatribe left them both staring at him as if he'd just dropped in from Mars. Blair ignored their expressions and let his anger carry him all the way back to his bedroom. As soon as he shut the doors the dark emotion fled, leaving him stranded high and dry on a plateau of shame. Why had he stopped there? Why not denigrate their entire occupation and more of the principles to which they'd each sworn solemn oaths?

He could hear them murmuring in the living room. If he had Jim's Sentinel hearing he could find out what they were saying. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that Jim had to fight temptation to eavesdrop almost constantly. Blair decided he didn't want to know what Jim and Simon were saying about him. He'd earned their justifiably low opinion of him, if not earlier, then certainly during this fiasco.

Blair sat on the edge of his bed, drained and despondent. A pile of clean, wrinkled laundry sat in the corner of his room and because he couldn't think of anything else better to do, he moved to the floor and started folding items one by one with his left hand. He heard the front door open and close, and a few minutes later Jim knocked.

"Come in," Blair said.

The door opened. Blair could see Jim out of the corner of his eye, but the police detective said nothing.

"Tell him I'm sorry," Blair said. He fought to keep his voice from breaking. "Please. Call him and tell him I'm sorry."

"I think that's your job, Chief."

Blair abandoned his effort to knot two socks together. Without looking at Jim he said, "Will you do me a favor?"

"What's that?"

"Go to work tomorrow."

Silence. Then, "I'll think about it."

The door shut.

Jim did go to work the next day, although for a good part of it he merely sat at his desk and debated calling home. He didn't know what exactly was bothering Blair, but could take a few educated guesses. Embarrassment at being robbed. Misplaced and totally inappropriate guilt over interrupting Jim's night. Fear of going outside again. The best thing for him might in fact be some time alone. He'd said he could skip his morning seminar to stay home for the day, and while Jim wasn't sure he entirely believed the seminar was that disposable, Blair had to make and reap the consequences of his own decisions.

More than one person who'd heard about Blair's injury dropped by to ask Jim questions and pass along condolences. Jim wondered if Blair knew how popular he'd grown to be at the station. At the time headquarters had been overtaken by terrorists, practically no one had even known Blair's name. Now he was a part of the daily routine, the good-natured bullpen mascot who came up with offbeat, interesting and sometimes even effective ideas about police work.

Jim left work at four, stopped off at the supermarket to pick up some groceries, and got home to find that Blair had already made dinner. Pasta with tomato and garlic sauce. "Smells great," Jim said, after lifting the lid on the sauce and taking a deep sniff. His appreciation won him a small smile from his partner.

"Yeah, well, don't get too excited. The sauce came out of a jar. Ever try to cut up tomatoes with the wrong hand?"

"Nope. I'll leave that to you."

Blair seemed genuinely interested in Jim's day and Jim obliged him by updating him on office gossip. After dinner they sat down to watch television. A new Jim Carrey comedy was playing on HBO, one they'd never seen before, and while Jim liked the jokes Blair seemed more quiet than amused. Blair went to bed early. The next morning Jim tried to interest him in going out to do some errands, but Blair just yawned and said he preferred staying in.

"I need to catch up on my notes," he said. "I've been slacking off lately."

When Jim opened the front door he found Katie Marshall in the hall, dressed in black athletic tights and warm-up jacket. "Hi," she said, apparently flustered at having the door open before she could knock. "I just came by to see if Blair remembered any additional information."

Blair came to the door and answered for himself. "Sorry," he said flatly. Then, perhaps to lessen the sting, he asked, "On your way to the gym?"

She nodded. "I study aikido just down the street from here, at DeSalvo's Martial Arts."

Jim perked up. "Aikido, huh? I've always wondered about that."

"You should come by and watch sometime."

"I will," Jim said.

No one said anything for a moment. Katie dug her hands into her jacket and said, "Well, then, I'd better go. See you later."

"See you, Katie," Jim said.

"Man," Blair said once she was gone, "you are so blind."

Jim turned in surprise. "Huh?"

"Blind as a bat."

"What?" Jim had no idea what Blair meant. A thought struck, and he glanced down the now-empty hall. "What? Her? Nah."

Blair nodded. "She's attracted to you, man, and you don't even notice. You've got a blind spot the size of Mars when it comes to women sometimes. Maybe the size of Jupiter."

"That's ridiculous, chief. Katie and I are just friends."

"Yeah, well, I get the feeling she wants to be more than just friends," Blair grinned. He turned away to go find his notes, leaving Jim pondering the possibility. Katie Marshall, interested in him?

He thought about it all the way to the bank, the post office and Wal-Mart. On impulse he dropped by her martial arts dojo, but the guy with the ponytail sitting in the main office said she'd already finished her workout. He returned home to find Blair wrapped up in his notes and laptop, sitting cross-legged on his bed and typing with one hand.

"You want to go out for dinner?" Jim asked.

"No, thanks anyway."

"How about a movie? My treat."

"Jim, I appreciate the thought, but I really need to catch up on this stuff. I've got a paper due next week and two course outlines to write. Skipping school Thursday and Friday didn't help."

Jim didn't quite believe his Guide, but he didn't push the issue. He thought about calling Ellen. They'd left things on Wednesday night on as positive a note as possible, considering Blair bleeding all over the place, but he didn't feel comfortable about her. He decided it was just going to be another dull Saturday night, and spent a few slow, tedious hours pulling all the plates, dishes and glasses out of the cabinets to wash down the shelves. He moved on to the spices, canned foods and other above-the-counter items before ending up on the floor and under the sink, discovering pots and pans he'd forgotten he owned.

"Jim!"

Jim banged his head sitting up quickly. "What?"

Blair glared at him. "Are you trying to make my studying difficult, or what?"

Jim felt a flash of guilt. "Sorry. Didn't mean to make so much noise."

Blair spun away and stomped back to his room.

By nine o'clock his kitchen-cleaning mission had been accomplished and Jim sat down to watch TV and drink beer. He went to bed around midnight, more out of boredom than anything else. Sunday he didn't even bother to ask Blair if he wanted to go to the park, merely slipped out while the younger man was still sleeping and went for a healthy four-mile run. The fresh air and sun cleared his head enormously. He sat on a bench in the park afterward, watching couples hand-in-hand and old people walking their dogs. He even stopped off at a fruit stand for a fresh banana shake, although he would never dare admit that nutritional foray to Blair. He returned home relaxed and happy, only to find his partner pacing back and forth and on the phone with Simon.

"-oh, never mind. He's home. Talk to you later." Blair hung up the phone.

Jim looked at him quizzically. "You called Simon? For what?"

"I thought something had happened to you, man. Your note said you were going running in the park and it was dated eight a.m. It's almost eleven now!"

"I did some other stuff, too," Jim said. He couldn't believe the concern and irritation in Blair's voice. "Sorry."

"Yeah, well, you know how to make a person worried, okay? You didn't even ask me if I wanted to go."

"I didn't think you'd want to."

"I like the park!"

"Blair, you haven't gone outside since we got home from the hospital."

Blair's gaze narrowed dangerously. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Jim threw up his hands. "It means what it means. What are you doing to do about tomorrow? Skip your class again? What about the day after? You have to go out sooner or later, unless you decide to become a total hermit."

Blair's face whitened. "That's none of your business," he snapped.

"It is too my business, Chief. You're my partner and my roommate, and I'm worried about you."

"Well, don't be! I can take care of myself."

Pent-up concern and frustration propelled the next words out of Jim's mouth before he could stop them. "I can see that. How about we start with your laundry, okay, Sandburg? Because you've been wearing those same sweatpants for four days now and they're beginning to smell a little ripe!"

"Screw you, man," Blair spat out. He spun away and headed for his door. Jim moved quickly to block the way.

"Don't do it, Chief. Don't run away. Don't slam the door and hide from this."

"Get out of my way." Blair's voice sounded low and dangerous, and the look on his face could have frozen lava flowing from a volcano.

"No."

"Jim, I swear -"

"Listen to me, will you? I'm worried about you! I don't know how to say it any other way. I'm worried and scared for you. I've never seen you like this. You're afraid to go out, aren't you?"

Blair looked away. His voice became softer, lower and more vulnerable. "I'm not afraid."

"I don't understand it. Explain it to me. The second time I met you, you threw me under the path of a speeding truck and saved both of our lives. A week later you went up against an entire band of terrorists almost single-handedly. Since then I've seen you take on situations that would have most police officers crapping in their pants. You're one of the bravest people I know, Blair. But this thing has thrown you down for the count, hasn't it?"

Blair went to the sofa, sat down, pulled his legs up and curled around a cushion. Jim followed for a few feet, then reversed direction and pulled two bottles of Snapple fruit punch from the refrigerator. He opened Blair's for him before setting it down on the coffee table and took up position in the armchair.

"I was stupid," Blair said, self-loathing and anger clear in his expression. "One kid, one knife. He looked nervous and scared, and I tried to talk him out of it. It wasn't that I didn't hand over my wallet quickly enough, like I told you and Katie. I tried to reason with him, tell him stealing wasn't the answer. Me and my big mouth. I haven't gotten it beaten into my skull yet that talk isn't always the best solution."

"But it's sometimes worth a shot," Jim argued. "Just because a situation looks dangerous doesn't mean it can't be diffused."

Blair raised his eyebrows. "So you're saying I did the right thing?"

"I don't know."

Blair scowled.

Jim spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I wasn't there, Chief. I didn't make the call. You've got good instincts and you like to believe the best in people. It could have worked. It didn't. But that doesn't mean trying was the wrong thing to do."

Blair drank from his bottle. "When I'm with you, man, everything is different. I go in expecting danger. I know you're there to back me up, or will be if I need you."

"That's a pretty big responsibility to put on my shoulders, Blair."

"But it's true! I have complete faith in you. The golden crap, Lash....you were there."

Jim dropped his gaze. He feared one day he wouldn't be there. He'd be one minute too late, or somehow fail in his role as Blessed Protector. But this conversation was about Blair, not him, and he kept his mouth shut.

"This time..." Blair shook his head. "I wasn't expecting anything. I was thinking about a dozen different things, and so hungry you could hear my stomach growling twenty feet away. All I wanted was the money and the pizza, and to get to Tony's. Then - bam! Random violence, man. Chaos breaking up the world you'd organized into neat little pieces. Nothing between you and the abyss."

Jim hadn't followed that entire train of thought, but after almost eighteen months of sharing Blair's life he thought he knew when the graduate student was derailing himself. "Blair, let me ask you something."

"Yeah?"

"Since this thing started I've seen you get mad at me, Simon and yourself. But I haven't seen you get mad at the kid. Why not?"

Blair stared at him with unwavering bright blue eyes. With a solemn gaze and an expression blanker than Jim had ever seen it. He looked away and answered, "Because." No one but a Sentinel could have heard it.

"Because why, Chief?"

Blair took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut. "Because I'm afraid. I'm afraid if I let myself get angry at him, I'm going to fall into a big red well of hate and never be able to climb out."

Jim didn't answer. Thirty seconds ticked away on his watch, and then another thirty.

Blair opened his eyes.

"What?" Jim asked. "You want me to tell you that's stupid? Wrong? Unreasonable?"

"Yes, yes and yes."

"It's not."

"It's stupid to get so worked up over fifty dollars and a few pieces of plastic, Jim."

Jim wagged a finger at him. "But who says we have control over what we feel? You're the smart guy, you already know that. We feel what we feel. It's what we do that counts. I haven't seen you grabbing my gun to go hunting the kid down like a vigilante. I haven't seen you take a kitchen knife and go hunting. You can be angry, Blair, and not hurt anyone."

"But I'm so angry - " Blair started with a rising voice, then broke off. He shook his head in disbelief. "Over a wallet. Material goods. You know what Naomi would say?"

"Over more than just a wallet. The kid took away your sense of safety. Took away your security. Cut you so bad you were bleeding all over the place-"

"Stop it, Jim."

"-you were staggering down the sidewalk, Chief! I saw the drops of blood." Jim paused, noting the effect of his words on Blair's pallor, respiration, heartbeat. The words made his own chest ache, but he pushed on relentlessly. "He hurt you bad, and you could barely get up the stairs-"

"Jim! I don't want to hear it!"

"-you were scared, and cold, and blacking out-"

"Stop it!" Blair picked up the Snapple bottle and hurled it past Jim, smack into the wall behind him. Glass shattered and red fluid sprayed everywhere. Jim felt wetness, and instinctively put a hand to the back of his neck.

"Oh, man!" Blair jumped up, frantic concern radiating out of his every pore. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine."

Blair's concern turned to fury. "Why did you make me do that? Why wouldn't you shut up?"

Jim kept his voice even. "Be mad at the kid, Blair, not at me."

"I'll be mad at both of you!" Blair's energy took him pacing back and forth in the living room, spinning on his bare feet, waving his one good arm wildly. "I want to get him, Jim! I want to take that knife and do to him what he did to me! That is so sick, man, but I can't help it! Every time I think about what happened I think yeah, maybe I have too big a mouth, but that didn't give him any excuse, the goddamn punk! He didn't have to cut me!"

Blair abruptly stopped and turned to Jim. Helplessness and vulnerability stole into his face. "He didn't have to cut me, man."

"I know," Jim said softly. "But he did. And you survived."

Blair's energy ran out. He plopped back down on the sofa, a wince crossing his face as he jarred his injured arm. He sniffed loudly, as if fighting back tears, and fixed his gaze on something beyond the window. "Yeah."

"Yeah," Jim said. He took his own bottle of Snapple, edged forward to the end of his chair, and offered it to Blair. Blair looked at him strangely, managed a tiny smile, and took a long drink.

"Better?" Jim asked.

Blair shrugged as best he could beneath the sling. "A little."

"Good," Jim said. "You've got a little mess to clean up here, Chief."

Blair laughed. Tears spilled down his face as he did so, but Jim wasn't alarmed. A four-day dam had broken down, and both the tears and laughter counted as ways of coping with the interior flood.

"But since you're a little handicapped at the moment," Jim offered, "I'll do it."

It took only a few minutes to mop up the spilled liquid and pick up the shattered glass. Blair hiccuped as he watched, and Jim felt his partner's eyes on him the whole time.

"Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"We're not going to catch the kid, are we?"

"Maybe. Probably not. You going to be okay with that?"

"Yeah," Blair said. "I suppose. Eventually."

"Does that mean you're at least going to give me a full description?"

"No."

Jim didn't understand. "No?"

Blair smiled tiredly. "I'll give Katie Marshall a full description, though. It will give her an excuse to drop by again. Don't let her get away so easily this time, okay?"

"You really think she likes me, huh?"

"Blind spot the size of Jupiter," Blair muttered. "What would you do without me?"

"Panic," Jim said frankly. "Drown in these Sentinel senses. I haven't even told you what happened while I was in the E.R. waiting room. My senses went haywire."

Blair perked up with equal parts scientific interest and concern. "Really? They did? Man, we've got to find out why! What happened? Tell me everything."

"On one condition, Chief."

"Yeah? What's that, Jim?"

"Go change your sweatpants."


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